Snow covers solar panels located inside the new 50-megawatt solar farm, which is comprised of approximately 150,000 panels spread across 300 acres, being built near Troy, in Perry County, Thursday morning, Jan. 28, 2021. The solar farm will begin supplying power for Vectren, a subsidiary of CenterPoint Energy company, in Spring 2021. Staff photo by Sam Owens
Snow covers solar panels located inside the new 50-megawatt solar farm, which is comprised of approximately 150,000 panels spread across 300 acres, being built near Troy, in Perry County, Thursday morning, Jan. 28, 2021. The solar farm will begin supplying power for Vectren, a subsidiary of CenterPoint Energy company, in Spring 2021. Staff photo by Sam Owens
EVANSVILLE — While plans have not yet been filed for a proposed 300-megawatt solar farm at the southwestern-most tip of Indiana in Posey County, residents there are organizing in opposition.

The 3,000-acre spread of solar panels will be 20 minutes west of Evansville, the largest city in the Tri-State. Until recently, coal reigned king in this region of Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois and provided an abundance of cheap fuel for power plants.

Among residents' concerns is the worry that fields of industrial-looking solar panels instead of corn and soybeans around their rural homes could affect property values.

Others have raised questions about safety, the effects on local infrastructure and whether or not the solar project should receive tax breaks.

More: Plan gives roadmap for reducing Evansville contribution to climate change

Large-scale solar farms like the one proposed for Posey County are increasingly likely in the Tri-State and across the Midwest, according to industry experts. Similar developments are already being planned for Henderson County, Kentucky, as well as Vanderburgh, Gibson, Pike and Knox counties in Southwestern Indiana.

Solar's stake in renewable energy game

Renewable energy sources account for most of the new power generation planned in 2021, and solar energy is leading the pack, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest inventory of electricity generation.

Solar will account for 39 percent of new power generation this year, the most of any renewable energy source, according to the EIA. An additional 15.4 gigawatts of utility-scale solar capacity is expected to be added to the electric grid, setting a new record for the growth of solar power.

At its current growth rate, solar power will make up nearly half of the renewable energy generated by 2050, while all renewable sources are expected to contribute about 42 percent of the country's electricity by then.

Decreasing construction costs for solar power and increasing demand for renewable energy are driving a nationwide growth in solar power installations, according to industry experts.

Utilities seeking to replace aging, coal-burning power plants with cleaner, more diverse energy generation portfolios are embracing renewable power sources such as solar and wind.

Environmental and consumer advocates say solar power will help utilities keep customer rates lower while cutting out health-threatening pollutants and the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change.

However, some property owners and residents who live near proposed solar farms have a differing outlook on the projects. In areas where solar farms have been proposed, many residents remain concerned about how it will affect their quality of life.

Posey County backlash

Lease payments for agricultural land needed to construct solar power projects are often touted as additional income for profit-strapped farmers.

Posey County farmer Alan Brenner sees it differently. As property owners have signed leases for the proposed 3,000-acre, 300-megawatt solar Posey Solar Project, Brenner and other farmers who lease some of the ground they plant are facing reduced incomes.

"They have already leased some of the land I farm. Most farmers don't own everything they farm," he said.

Like his father before him, Brenner, 65, wants to pass on the family farm to his children. Brenner said he has been working the land since 1976, when as a kid he began helping his father farm.

He worries, too, about the effect a large solar development will have on wildlife and the quality of the rural life he loves.

"This kind of peacefulness is going away in this country," Brenner mused.

While Brenner said he has no intention of "selling out," other properties have snapped at the opportunity.

That's how some residents in rural Marrs Township in southeast Posey County, such as homeowner Misty Bishop, may find themselves facing the hard decision to either stay and look at a changed landscape or relocate.

"I don't want to look out and see solar panels on three sides 100 feet from my property," she said. "It's beautiful out here. It's just farmland."

Bishop and her family moved from Evansville's West Side to their home on Lower Mount Vernon Road 14 years ago. She operates a hair salon there, too.

The old farmhouse with its wrap-around porch is her dream home, she said. Her sons attend nearby Marrs Elementary School, which she said would also be affected by the development.

Bishop said she worries the solar panels will be a safety hazard. She and other neighbors have organized to attend public meetings and oppose the project with a petition and website.

Among their concerns are how the project will affect property values, safety and quality of life.

"Almost every single person in our area is opposed to it," she said.

Bishop said her family will likely move if the solar project moves forward.

"If we can find a buyer," she said.

Longtime Marrs Township resident Jerry Chastain said he would like to see solar farms located in more remote or industrial areas, where they will have fewer potential impacts to residents. Like other residents, he said he has been frustrated by a lack of detailed information about the project.

Residents have questions, Chastain said, including about everything from whether or not the solar panels will be screened from view, to fire safety, impact on area roads, the effect on property values and tax abatement.

"Nobody here is opposed to solar power," he said.

An application to phase in the development's taxes over 10 years has been filed but contains few concrete details about the project itself. There will be a public hearing on it at the Posey County Council meeting on March 9.

Land and sun

Renewable energy developers say Southern Indiana has everything needed for attracting large-scale solar projects.

"There is more sun in the southern part of the state, and that equals more generation. There is abundant land, and there is transmission infrastructure," said Jarrod Pitts, a project developer for Tenaska.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based company Pitts works for is partnering with Arevon Energy Management to develop the Posey Solar Project.

The partnership is developing five of the six solar farms currently on the drawing board in Southwestern Indiana. The projects will generate a combined total of more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Most are slated to be operational in 2023, although the RATTS 1 solar farm near Petersburgh, Indiana, will be operational next year.

Including their name, location, output and cost, they are:

• Posey Solar Project, Posey County, 300 megawatts, $225 million
• RATTS 1, Pike County, 150 megawatts, $128 million
• Gibson County Solar, Gibson County, 280 megawatts, $215 million
• Elliott Solar Project, Gibson County, 200 megawatts, $170 million
• RATTS 2, Knox County, 150 megawatts, $128 million.

Among their customers will be NIPSCO (Northern Indiana Public Service Co.) and Indiana Municipal Power Association, a group of municipally-owned electric utilities.

Others, such as Posey Solar, will either be uploaded to the electric grid for sale on the regional market or to customers who have not yet signed purchase agreements, Pitts said.

Pitts cites a "significant increase" in renewable energy demand from Indiana utilities as one of the reasons Arevon-Tenaska has been attracted to the Hoosier state, along with those utilities' preferences for energy generation projects within the state.

"Nationally, we are seeing a continued increase in demand for renewables from utilities or companies that want it," Pitts said. "Cost is continuing to come down while at the same time across the United States that economic tipping point has been reached where renewables are the lowest cost source for energy."

In far eastern Spencer County, a 50-megawatt project by California-based Orion Renewable Energy Group is nearly complete. The Troy Solar project will supply its power to CenterPoint Energy (formerly Vectren).

Orion also is continuing work to develop its proposed 70- to-80-megawatt Crescent City Solar project near U.S. 41 and Baseline Road in Vanderburgh County, said Orion Director of Development Justin Wolf.

"It's only been in the last five years that solar has really gained its legs as far as utility of scale. I'd say solar is slowly migrating to the Heartland," Wolf said. "Solar and wind are very competitive -- less expensive than gas and coal."

While wind power is very specific about where it can be located, Wolf said part of solar's appeal is that it can be located closer to the cities and regional wholesale markets where there is demand for power.

However, large-scale solar projects require large tracts of land.

"You can put about five acres per megawatt," Wolf said. "Generally, it's about one-third solar panels and two-thirds open ground."

Sean Gallagher, vice president of state and regulatory affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said land use is part of the balancing act that must be considered when evaluating large-scale solar developments.

"There are trade-offs in anything you do. You don't have coal ash waste ponds but there is a lot of land use," Gallagher said.

Two solar projects are slated for Henderson County.

Pennsylvania-based Community Energy Inc. has an agreement to develop a solar farm that would provide up to 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity for 20 years to Henderson Municipal Power & Light.

Henderson County Solar would be located on 541 acres along the Kentucky 425/South Bypass and nearby Lover’s Lane just outside the city of Henderson. Its 130,000 solar panels will be bolted to a racking system that would allow the panels to track the sun from east to west during the day.

A second, 1,680-acre solar farm is planned to serve Big Rivers Electric Corp. The Unbridled Solar Project will be on the Henderson-Webster county line south of Robards.

Infrastructure and capacity

The Tri-State region has long been known for its abundance of coal.

"It's why we saw power generation flourish in our market over time, because that was where the coal mines were," said Greg Wathen, president/CEO of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana.

The existence of substations and power lines bringing that coal-generated electricity to customers is one of the main reasons Southwestern Indiana is now attractive to solar power, he said.

"It's all interconnected to the (power) grid. You already have this massive grid in place for coal. That same infrastructure can support solar," Wathen said. "There are hundreds of miles of transmission lines that now can be utilized for for renewables instead of putting it in the middle of nowhere where you are without that infrastructure."

Settling on a specific location for a solar farm can be a thorny issue.

"The real challenge is siting. To say I want it to be near no one, that's interesting because you have to connect it," Wathen said. "Infrastructure matters in all this."

Environmental impacts

The Tri-State's abundance of coal also led to a large concentration of power plants in the region, particularly in Southwest Indiana, where it powered manufacturing and economic development in decades past.

What was once billed a source of cheap electricity had another side.

Pollution.

That same concentration of power plants and factories became a concentration of "super polluters" pumping millions of pounds of toxic air emissions into the Ohio River Valley's skies and the lungs of residents.

Renewable energy resources such as solar power not only reduce pollution but also mitigate power plants' contributions to climate change, say environmental advocates such as Wendy Bredhold, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Indiana and Kentucky.

"This is a good development in terms of our health," Bredhold said. "We have to transition away from fossil fuels, and we have a few utilities in Indiana who are doing pretty well at that."
 
These large solar installations don't produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change or put out pollution, but they aren't entirely without environmental impacts.

Just like other types of power plants, solar farms do affect their surroundings. When land is cleared for solar projects it may have long-term effects on the habitats that support native plants and wildlife, according to the EIA.

While the photovoltaic (PV) panels used on solar farms are mostly glass, they can contain lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals, according to the EIA. Use and disposal of these materials is regulated by U.S. environmental laws.

Indiana utilities

How are Indiana's five investor-owned utility companies progressing in the trend toward renewable energy such as solar and wind?

A recent Sierra Club report graded utilities on their plans to retire coal plants, stop building new natural gas plants and invest in renewable energy.

NIPSCO received an "A" for its plan to stop using coal entirely by 2028, replacing it with renewable energy sources and without building new natural gas plants.

Closer to home, CenterPoint Energy (formerly Vectren), received a "B" for its approach.

Solar power is one of the sources CenterPoint will rely on to supplant 700 megawatts of electricity from coal-fired generating units slated for closure.

The utility company has said it intends to retire its coal-burning power plants and has set October 2023 as its date to close its A.B. Brown Generating Station in Posey County. It's part of a strategy to reduce its carbon emissions 70 percent by 2035.

"Renewable power has become more cost-competitive and, when coupled with other resources such as natural gas, provides for cleaner, reliable power," said Natalie Hedde, CenterPoint spokeswoman. "Implementing a cleaner energy future will allow CenterPoint and its customers to achieve carbon reduction goals, better serve our communities and neighbors in need, and provide the business and economic development tools needed to keep our region moving forward."

Even more than environmental benefits, utilities are finding that solar and other renewable energy sources are cost-efficient.

"Utilities like NIPSCO and Vectren that have done these all-source request for proposals are finding that clean energy is the most affordable energy for their customers, and that's why they got an A and B respectively from our report on climate commitments. It is a win-win," Bredhold said.

How it works

The cost of solar power, both with and without battery storage, has come down 45 percent in the last five years and 80 percent in the past 10 years, Gallagher said.

Also, nationally, large corporations such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft have made clear they want their power to come from clean energy sources, Gallagher said. It's a trend that is beginning to filter down to smaller corporations.

Energy in sunlight can be converted into electricity in two ways, according to a new Congressional Research Service report. The first is by using solar photovoltaic (PV) cells — solar panels that absorb light to create direct current electricity. Technology called an inverter is then used to convert the direct current to an alternating current for distribution on the power grid.

Most solar energy generation, 96% in 2018, comes from PV systems, according to the report.

A second, more costly form of solar generation, is concentrated solar power (CSP) which uses the sun's energy to produce heat for electricity generation.

Solar power accounted for 43 percent of the new electrical generation capacity added in the United States from January-September 2020, according to the SEIA. The industry association is forecasting solar generation by utilities to grow 8.6 gigawatts by 2025 as more utilities announce carbon reduction and renewable energy goals.

That's nearly 27 million new solar panels, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

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