Northeast Indiana is seeing renewed interest in solar power – a sudden surge in plans to build solar farms of 1,000 acres or more.
In Noble County, a 2,000 to 3,000 acre solar farm – three square miles or more – is being proposed south of Albion.
In DeKalb County, reports say a solar developer is leasing land for a 1,600-acre facility south of Butler. On a smaller scale, on Tuesday, Auburn’s Planning Commission will hear a request to install solar panels on 55 acres southwest of the city.
Just across the border in Defiance County, Ohio, 700 and 500 acre solar farms are being built between Hicksville and the town of Defiance.
Officials in Noble and DeKalb counties are scrambling to promulgate regulations for solar parks before they can be built in the absence of rules.
“We are in the process of drafting an ordinance to protect these people over there” near the proposed solar farm, DeKalb County Commissioners Chairman Bill Hartman said earlier this month.
“Some households are going to be surrounded on three sides – even on the other side of the road, that’s a possibility,” Hartman said. “So we want to establish reasonable setbacks that won’t necessarily prevent solar companies from developing these fields, but will protect these owners from the intrusion that it might cause. “
Noble County currently has no rules for commercial grade solar operations in its Unified Development Ordinance, and its planning commission is grappling with the issue.
What landowners think about solar farms may depend on whether or not they sign long-term leases for solar developers to use their properties.
Hartman said he heard reports of landowners renting their land for $ 900 an acre per year, far more than they could possibly profit from by increasing crops. An official in Randolph County, where a large solar farm is being built, said the developers have made similar rental offers there.
“I would definitely do it,” said solar expert Vince Barletto of leasing land for solar panels. “Farmers can actually take vacations. The land works for them, not the other way around.
“You’re going to start to see more solar projects, more renewable projects in Indiana. Companies make a lot of money with them, good margins, ”said Barletto. Senior Project Engineer for Cypress Creek Renewables, a leading national solar company, he serves on the advisory board of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Trine University.
“Indiana is one of the latest advancements in solar power,” Barletto said. “We really have very little in comparison” with other parts of the country.
That is changing now, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Last week, he reported that Indiana ranked fourth among all states for newly installed solar capacity in the first three months of 2021, with 464 megawatts added.
“This is more than the state had installed in any previous year and is doubling its total solar capacity. Indiana’s growth trajectory is strong, with nearly 4 gigawatts of new solar capacity expected over the next five years, ”the association said.
The proposed solar farm in Noble County would generate between 300 and 400 megawatts of electricity.
Large utility companies such as NIPSCO and Indiana Michigan Power contract with solar developers to generate renewable energy, Barletto said.
A 30% federal investment tax credit is on top of the incentive to build solar farms, he said.
“What is really happening… is that these solar farms are built on land that is crossed by transmission lines or very close,” which makes the connection to the energy grid inexpensive, said Barletto.
Solar power generation costs have fallen by 70% over the past 10 years, adding to the appeal of renewables, Barletto added.
For a landlord leasing land from solar developers, “There’s really not a lot of risk,” Barletto said. “It’s pretty cool to know that your farmland is now helping to reduce emissions. “
For the local government, he said, “It creates incredible tax revenues. That’s why counties like it.
The Cepheus Solar Project north of Sherwood, Ohio, expects to pay about $ 500,000 in property taxes per year, benefiting schools and local governments, according to documents released by Cepheus Energy Project LLC.
“It seems like a really positive thing, not just for the community, but for us as a company,” said Andy Hill, who leases his land near Butler from 7X Energy in Austin, Texas. The Texan company is also developing the Cepheus project.
Hill said the leases in DeKalb County would last 35 years, with three potential extensions.
“You don’t lose your ownership interest in the property,” Hill said.
Lawyer for DeKalb County Commissioners James McCanna said last week he was considering Randolph County’s new solar ordinance as a possible model for DeKalb County rules.
Randolph County Commissioners passed their solar power ordinance in July 2020, and construction of an 1,800-acre solar farm has started there.
The 43-page Randolph ordinance requires solar panels to be set back 40 feet from a house lined on both sides, but 100 feet if the panels are on three or four sides.
Time will tell how well the regulations protect residents, said Randy Abel, director of land use planning for Randolph County.
“Solar companies say it won’t affect property value” to live next to a solar farm, Abel said. “I don’t see how it couldn’t. I still have concerns about this. There really isn’t a good research that has been done on this.
Documents released by the Cepheus Energy Project for Defiance County, Ohio, say trees and bushes will be planted as a vegetative buffer to reduce views of the solar farm.
“We are planting perennials, which increase soil stability, improve infiltration and help promote biodiversity,” Cepheus said.
The Auburn Renewables Solar Array project south of Auburn envisions ‘agrovoltaics’ which could involve growing crops such as strawberries or tomatoes under solar panels, as well as the potential for beehives.
Under the Randolph County ordinance, if a solar farm meets county standards, no public hearing is required to obtain permission to begin construction.
“If there are worried people, they should show up when the ordinance was written” rather than after the solar farm proposal, Abel advised.
In addition to the setbacks, DeKalb County Commissioners are looking at decommissioning issues – what would happen to a solar farm if the developer does not take responsibility after its useful life.
“There’s no way that could happen,” Barletto said of an issue involving an aging solar farm.
Hill said his DeKalb County contract specifically states that the developer is required to post a bond with the county that would pay for the removal of used solar panels.
“In all of these contracts there are clauses setting out clean-up procedures in the event of failure,” Hill said.
He added: “In everything we’ve been through, I haven’t found a lot of negative points in the contract. I think solar power is a great way for us as a society. “