Wisconsin food company investing in solar electricity

LA FARGE, Wis. — A Wisconsin food company is planning to invest in solar electricity aimed at increasing the state's solar capacity and reducing electric bills for rural customers.

La Farge-based Cooperative Organic Valley has partnered with solar developer OneEnergy Renewables and the Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group on the project, the La Crosse Tribune reported. It's expected to create about 29 megawatts of solar capacity in up to a dozen municipal utilities.

"Our future demands bold new thinking about our sources of energy, and there is nothing more natural to a farmer than harnessing the power of the sun and the wind," said George Siemon, the company's CEO.

Organic Valley plans to purchase renewable energy credits for 40 percent of the new capacity, which will offset the company's electricity.

The company has invested about $6 million in renewable energy over the past six years. It created the partnership in order to build on a larger scale, which otherwise would be impractical, even for a company with $1 billion in annual sales.

"We just don't have enough roofs or open space to put in that much solar," said Jonathan Reinbold, head of sustainability for the company. "We realized that this is going to be a bigger lift and the board wasn't going to be pushing us to spend $20 million in capital."

The food company also plans to plant native flowers and grasses around the new solar panels to support bees and butterflies.

OneEnergy hasn't released an estimate for the project's cost.

Construction is expected to begin in the summer and continue into 2019, said Eric Udelhofen, development director for OneEnergy. The project could increase the state's solar capacity by more than a third.