By Mark Wilson
Evansville Courier & Post
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.
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.”
This article was made available through Hoosier State Press Association.