A renewable energy company has asked local government officials to address utility-scale solar farms in the zoning regulations as it moves forward on a $242 million, 200-megawatt project.
The Riverstart Solar Park, first announced in 2018, would include 670,000 photovoltaic solar panels on 1,400 acres in southwest Randolph County and produce enough energy to power about 37,000 households — the largest such project in the state.
The county said in a news release that it is poised to be a leader of renewable energy in Indiana — it’s already home to an ethanol plant and a wind farm that is doubling in size — and an environmental group says the solar farm could attract tourists if it is developed to help wildlife, including pollinators like birds and bees.
But even if it doesn’t attract visitors, the project will benefit the local economy in several ways.
For size comparison purposes, if you are familiar with the Indianapolis International Airport’s solar farm (hailed as the largest solar farm on any airport in the world), its capacity is about 20 MW, or a tenth the size of Riverstart.
Indiana Michigan Power is planning to build a new 20-megawatt solar plant near South Bend and already operates four solar generation plants, including the 2.5 MW Deer Creek Solar Facility in Marion. When the South Bend project is finished, I&M solar plants will generate up to 35 MW of electricity.
A 9 MW solar farm opened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2014.
The Indiana Municipal Power Agency has developed more than 20 solar parks throughout the state, ranging in size from 0.25 MW to 8 MW, including sites operating or under construction in Anderson, Spiceland, Centerville and Richmond.
As of the first quarter of 2020, Indiana had 444.8 MW of solar power installed, ranking it 23rd nationally, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. But the percentage of the state’s electricity from solar was still below 1%.
The Delaware-Muncie Metropolitan Plan Commission is planning to get a solar-farm zoning ordinance added to the books this year, though at the February commission meeting Director Marta Moody said she had not talked to any companies interested in the Muncie area. Commission member Jesse Landess said at the meeting he had heard reports of up to 1,000 acres being looked at in Delaware County for solar.
The commission appointed a committee several years ago to consider wind-farm zoning regulations, but nothing ever came of that.
Meanwhile, an ordinance regulating the siting of solar energy systems appears on the agenda of the Randolph County commissioners’ meeting on June 15.
Two days later, the Area Planning Commission of Randolph County will conduct a public hearing on the solar ordinance, which addresses both commercial and non-commercial systems, at 7 p.m. in the Randolph Center for Family Opportunity, 325 S. Oak St. The public is asked to practice social distancing at the meeting and to wear masks. The commission is encouraging public comment at the hearing. Or call in your comments to (765-584-0162).
The developer of the solar farm asked the county to get started on a solar ordinance after learning that it lacked one.
The nonprofit Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) wants to see utility-scale solar projects like this succeed in Indiana, “provided that there is real rigor to avoid bird corridors and the sites themselves are as wildlife-friendly as possible,” Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda told The Star Press.
“We’re encouraged that Randolph County seems ready to embrace being home to the largest solar project in Indiana and ready to locate it in an already-built renewable energy cluster,” he went on, adding his group would like to engage with the developer “so that it does everything possible to make their site as friendly to birds and other pollinators, given the catastrophic global declines we have seen with respect to birds, bees and other pollinators.”
“Should the Riverstart site be best-in-class in terms of its friendliness to wildlife, we would look forward to the cluster of renewable energy projects in Randolph County enabling the county to be a destination for renewable energy tourism, STEM education and wildlife education,” Kharbanda said via email. “Our hope, too, would be that renewable energy manufacturers would be drawn to Randolph County, as we have observed that component producers can cluster near dense concentrations of renewable energy development.”
Renewables look promising to HEC because Indiana has excellent electric transmission, corporations wanting to make major in-state purchases of renewable energy (as Cummins and Nestle have recently done), and it is near major population centers like Chicago, Kharbanda noted.
“While there have been some counties resistant to utility-scale wind, the reception with respect to utility-scale solar seems warmer (for example, Henry County rejects utility-scale wind but is on the road to embracing utility-scale solar),” Kharbanda said. “As rural counties working to jumpstart their economies, post-COVID-19, and make up for lost revenue, utility-scale renewables will look even more compelling to them.”
Madrid, Spain-based EDP Renewables (EDPR) is the owner of the Riverstart project. The company already built the 200 MW Headwaters Wind Farm and is now completing a second phase that will add another 200 MW to its portfolio in Randolph County, bringing the total number of turbines there to 149. Riverstart would be co-mingled with the wind farms.
Responding to HEC’s recommendation, Christopher Beasely, project developer at EDPR, noted that the project would convert some 1,400 acres of farm land into native prairie grass beneath and around the solar panels.
The native tall grasses have multiple benefits for wildlife, including food, nesting sites, and winter cover. Such habitat is used by grassland birds, hawks, rabbits and other small mammals.
Whether the project will include wildflowers, which make grass plantings even more attractive to wildlife, remains up in the air, Beasley told The Star Press, citing the cost factor. But wildflowers could come up on their own after time.
In addition to helping wildlife, native grasses are low-maintenance compared to short turf grass, with the former requiring to be mowed only once a year, Beasley went on.
“I think this solar farm is a great idea,” John Vann, a retired Ball State University professor and a grassroots solar advocate, told The Star Press. “I’ve known about it for some time. In fact, I thought it was already under construction. By the way, some large solar farms are planting native flowers to support pollinators.”
Bloomington-based Hoosier Energy Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc. has agreed to purchase the power from Riverstart Solar Park, expected to be operational in 2022.
EDPR estimates that Riverstart represents a capital investment of about $242 million and will disperse millions in property tax payments to local governments and school districts over the life of the project.
The project also will create hundreds of full-time equivalent jobs during construction as well as several permanent jobs.
The company says a solar energy project this size will produce renewable energy in a way that saves more than 335 million gallons of water each year and displaces carbon emissions from fossil fuel power plants, a major contributor to climate change. Solar energy also enhances air quality by helping to mitigate the health effects of harmful air pollutants.
Millions of dollars will be paid to the solar park’s landowners through the life of the project. The landowners participate in long-term lease agreements.