Marshall County passes 1-yr moratorium on large solar farms

See the local reporting by WTCA for details.

After a solar company started signing leases with private property owners in SW Marshall County, local county officials were forced to address the standards and procedures necessary to ensure that solar development is done responsibly.

Having been involved with several solar projects from rooftop to commercial scale, I thought I would aggregate some information relevant to this issue. Utility-scale solar – spanning hundreds to over 1,000 acres – demands more planning than a single array behind the farmstead.

I queried friends on social media for the concerns they would have if they had received news that their neighbors had decided to lease to a solar farm. I then went through the issues with publicly available data.

My hope is that this information is useful to citizens, public officials, educators, and any others interested in this important issue. My comments are about large solar farms in general, not about any particular proposal or solar farm design. Any errors are mine, and I welcome correction.

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Regional Context

NIPSCO completed an IRP (Integrated Resource Plan) in 2018 to determine the future of electricity generation. Through their study, they found that they could save customers more than $4 billion over 30 years by moving from 65% coal today to 15% coal in 2023 and eliminating the resource by 2028. To replace retiring coal, NIPSCO found that a portfolio of solar, storage, wind and demand management is the cheapest option, while still maintaining grid reliability. (source, source).

NIPSCO’s current preferred resource plan — Scenario 6 below — would see it retire all four units of the Schahfer plant in 2023 and the last coal unit at its Michigan City plant in 2028.

NIPSCO found in Indiana what is a similar trend across the country: the cheapest new energy sources for the grid are almost always renewable energy sources, and electricity storage (e.g. batteries). There are more than 37,000 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar projects currently operating, with another 112,000 MW under development.

As seen in this study below by Lazard, “Solar PV – Thin Film Utility Scale” is among the cheapest source of new electricity in the country, as found in this study of by Lazard.

In October 2019, NIPSCO issued an RFP for 300 MW of wind, 2,300 MW of solar and solar-plus-storage project. Utility-scale solar farms require approximately 5-10 acres per MW, which makes potentially 11,500-23,000 acres in their service territory eligible for lease payments via solar investment.

Considering Marshall County’s cultural context, it should be noted that recent polling shows that 88% of Hoosier Republicans say owners should be able to lease their land to wind or solar energy developers, and 84% support the least expensive energy options, which favor renewable energy.


Solar leases would provide a steady, drought-resistant rental income to land owners who wish to use their private property rights in this way.

Solar farms take cultivated land temporarily out of row crops and preserve farmland for the long-term. After its service life of several decades, soil health will have improved due to the lack of annual tillage, as any farmer knows from breaking fallow fields. Residential and industrial development permanently removes ground from agricultural production. No one restores old neighborhoods and factories back to row-crop ag. Solar farms planted with wildflowers can increase adjacent farm yields for some crops.

Solar installations create local and regional economic activity. A study conducted by independent research and consulting firm WoodMackenzie, says the Hoosier state could benefit from more than $5 billion in investment and nearly 25,000 jobs.

A frequently heard refrain in rural Indiana counties these days is: “we have to protect the tax base” because of property tax caps set by the state legislature. That means planning for proper development and economic activity. Presumably, a solar farm would generate significant property tax revenues for the county.

With responsible planning, solar farms cause far less impact to the land than industrial parks, residential developments, and fossil fuel extraction.

Solar farms collect solar energy just as plants in a field do. Instead of storing energy in a corn kernel or soybean, they provide electrical energy. Solar farms require no external fuel sources to operate, just sunlight.

After manufacturing & installation is complete, there are no emissions from solar farms. They operate silently.


“A field of solar panels will destroy my property values.”

 I could not find any evidence for this.

Cohn & Reznick recently completed a valuation study of properties near solar farms in Indiana and Illinois and concluded: “Based upon our examination, research, and analyses of the existing solar farm uses, the surrounding areas, and an extensive market database, we have concluded that no consistent negative impact has occurred to adjacent property that could be attributed to proximity to the adjacent solar farm,with regard to unit sale prices or other influential market indicators. This conclusion has been confirmed by numerous County Assessors who have also investigated this use’s potential impact

While developing permitting Marshall County Plan Director Ty Adley presented these valuations assessments at the 1/23/20 plan commission meeting.

“I don’t like these panels. I think they’re ugly and I prefer that my neighboring property owners maintain fields of corn or bare dirt.”

This is a value/opinion statement about how neighbors express their private property rights, for which there is no right or wrong or evidence-based answer.

“This sounds like liberals pushing some ‘green’ agenda.”

According to a 2019 poll of Indiana Republican voters:

  • 88% of Republicans say owners should be able to lease their land to wind or solar energy developers
  • 84% of Republicans support the least expensive energy options, which favor renewable energy
  • 71% of Republicans support developing more solar farms in Indiana
  • 57% of Republicans favor candidates who will increase the use of renewable energy

“I’ve heard these deals rely on federal grants. What if that support is removed in the middle of the project?”

The most common subsidy for solar farms is the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). For projects where construction starts in 2021, it is a 22% credit. For utility-scale projects in 2022 and beyond, it is 10%.

Entities do not apply for a limited number of these credits, they are available for all qualified projects.

I am not aware of any on-going grants or operational funding for utility scale solar projects. As NIPSCO’s IRP shows, these projects are already economically competitive with other new sources.

“Aren’t these going to be as problematic as wind turbines?”

Solar farms are not wind farms. They are both renewable energy sources with zero fuel costs, but there are significant differences. 

Photovoltaic solar farms convert the sun’s rays into electricity by exciting electrons in silicon cells using the photons of light from the sun, while wind farms convert the mechanical energy of spinning blades into electrical current via a turbine.

Wind farms are hundreds of feet tall, solar farms are not.

Wind farms produce peak energy at night and in the winter. Solar farms produce peak energy during the day and in the summer. In that way, they are complementary. 

Wind farms require concrete for tower foundations. Most solar farms use a racking design with posts driven directly into the soil, without a foundation.

“What if these things turn out to be toxic and pollute local soil and water?”

NC State University released a white paper entitled, “Health and Safety Impacts of Solar Photovoltaics.” Their summary reads: “The purpose of this paper is to address and alleviate concerns of public health and safety for utility-scale solar PV projects. Concerns of public health and safety were divided and discussed in the four following sections: (1) Toxicity, (2) Electro-magnetic Fields, (3) Electric Shock and Arc Flash, and (4) Fire. In each of these sections, the negative health and safety impacts of utility-scale PV development were shown to be negligible, while the public health and safety benefits of installing these facilities are significant and far outweigh any negative impacts.”

If a solar farm is installed where a conventional row crop field, there are reductions in pesticide use, dust, and nitrogen pollution in the immediate area.

“What about decommissioning?”

I am not an expert in this area, but I can comment on my direct experience. The support structures at Ancilla College were impact-driven posts. Because there are not concrete foundations, presumably these could be removed with the appropriate machinery. Panels are secured to the racking structure with bolts. There are wire runs in the ground for each installation, designed to be minimal in length to reduce cost. Inverters occupy a small percentage of the footprint of a solar farm and typically have foundations.

One needs to also evaluate solar farms in comparison to other forms of development. I am not aware that land used for conventional light industrial development can be reclaimed for agriculture at all. Likewise, I have not heard of residential subdivisions being reclaimed. Conventional fossil fuel development has left thousands of communities struggling with a legacy of toxic pollution, such as petcoke in East Chicago, abandoned oil wells in California, as well as the much-publicized concerns of natural gas fracking ground-water. 

“Won’t a solar farm permanently ruin the land for agriculture?”

Solar farms take cultivated land temporarily out of row crops and preserve farmland for the long-term. Residential and industrial development permanently removes ground from agricultural production. No one restores old neighborhoods and factories back to row-crop ag.

Solar farms can typically be installed without grading the site. At Ancilla College, for example, no grading was necessary and the racking structure followed the curvature of the earth. Nothing heavier than a skid steer was used during construction.

There is an emerging practice of using native wildflowers in between and around solar panels. See NREL’s InSPIRE program. This has the potential to reduce maintenance costs, increase soil health, and provide benefit to pollinators. “Crop pollination scientists in New Jersey and Michigan have published peer-reviewed research showing that an increased abundance of wild pollinators boosts yields for specialty crops” in adjacent fields (Highly compatible: pollinator friendly solar projects and farming).

Having perennial vegetation on the soil (especially with multiple species of deep-rooted native plants) with increase the biological & microbial activity in the soil, sequestering carbon from the air. Presumably this would be similar to bringing “set-aside” land back into cultivation after being fallow. Typically the soil is in better health than from tillage and soil compaction from conventional farm operations.

“What about environmental concerns, such as erosion, soil compaction, and effects on wildlife?”

The Nature Conservancy of North Carolina produced, “Principles of Low Impact Solar Siting and Design” that address these concerns and develop principles for prioritizing locations for solar farms.

NREL has more resources about low-impact solar development.

“What about the glare off of all that glass?”

“Local objections to proposed solar photovoltaic (PV) installations sometimes include concerns that the modules will cause glare that could impact neighbors or aviation. Research on this subject demonstrates that PV modules exhibit less glare than windows and water.

Solar PV modules are specifically designed to reduce reflection, as any reflected light cannot be converted into electricity. PV modules have been installed without incident at many airports.” (NREL)

“How consistent is the electricity (and revenue) from solar farms?”

Solar has large swings in production from day to day, but solar resources over the course of an entire year are relatively predictable, especially compared to conventional agricultural yields.

This project in Kokomo has full-year data from 2011-2018. Yearly production values ranged from 95% to 110% of the 8-year average.

My presumption is that contracts between developers and individual land owners are likely to be simple leases with regular payments.

“I heard that solar panels take more energy to produce than they make during their lifetime.”

Each situation is different, but large solar farms installed today likely make back the energy it took to manufacture and install them in a year or two.

“Is the solar energy going to stay here or are they sending it off to Texas or China or elsewhere?”

Electricity travels at near light speed and must be consumed or stored right away. Our homes and businesses – whether NIPSCO or Marshall County REMC – are all connected in a massive grid called the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). Local utilities coordinate with MISO to maintain reliable access to electricity. Power is bought and sold in markets to reduce cost. At any given moment electricity can be flowing either direction on a power line. Flows are based on infrastructure, not necessarily county lines.

Other than a small biogas reactor at Homestead Dairy, there are no significant sources of electric generation in the county. Solar panels afford us the opportunity to power Marshall County economic activity, transportation, and household operations with Marshall County resources.

For very rough numbers, 1,000 acres of ground would be sufficient for ~117 MW of solar. This would power ~16,000 homes. There are 17,406 households in Marshall County, as well as commercial and industrial power demands. At periods of peak energy production (midday hours), presumably energy is exported across the county and beyond. Without storage, energy is then imported at night from other sources. Just as energy is moved across the state in the form of ag products, so electric energy is moved across power lines in order to keep costs low and reliability high.

“Solar panels don’t produce energy at night.”

They do not.

Being that so little solar energy has been installed in Indiana so far, the electric grid can handle lots of solar deployment before the intermittency of renewable energy becomes a significant issue. Grid operators have strict reliability parameters when deploying power across the grid to ensure that power outages are rare.

NIPSCO’s IRP calls for new wind energy, demand response, and batteries, all of which can operate at night, in addition to the natural gas, coal, and hydroelectric plants still operating. This is the cheapest option for ratepayers.

Additional Resources
Land-Use Planning for Large Scale Solar (powerpoint by SolSmart)

An overview of potential environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic impacts and mitigation measures for utility-scale solar energy development (118 pg report by Argonne Nat’l Lab)

Study: Indiana Could Benefit From More Renewable Energy

From Steel to Solar and Soccer: Mixed-Use Redevelopment in Indiana, THE CONTINENTAL STEEL SUPERFUND SITE IN KOKOMO, INDIANA

Riverstart Solar Project in Randolph County, IN, by EDP Renewables

Utility-scale solar pipeline hits 37.9 GW, driven by falling costs and corporate buying: Report (Utility Dive)

Planning for the future with our Integrated Resource Plan (NIPSCO)

chasing birds

Like last year, my family decided it was best for our serotonin levels (and marriage) to head south for a week and try to escape the permacloud that settles over the Midwest in winter.

I lugged around my Canon as we walked the beach and nature trails. For the birds, as always! (Photo gallery at the end of the post).

I noticed that one American Oystercatcher had something high up on its legs. A bird band! Someone had attached an identifying tag to this individual. I made sure to get several photos, in focus, in order to read the markings on the band.

Y 42 patrols the surf for breakfast

You should report any banded bird you find to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It provides crucial data that helps scientists understand the life history of our feathered friends.

Within just a couple days, I got a certificate describing when and where this particular individual was banded:

Turns out it was banded year a few dozen miles up the coast, 4 years ago.

As I’m not a regular duck hunter, this is only the second time I’ve been able to report a band, so I was pretty excited, despite the rather normal description.

If you, reader, find that a rather odd way to spend one’s vacation… well, I can’t argue with you 🙂 The heart wants what it wants.

We didn’t do any major expeditions like the Everglades trip last year, so I don’t have much to share. I only ID’s 37 birds in a week, which for Florida is nothing.

But! I did add one new species to my “life list” – the Red Knot. I couldn’t tell what they were when I photographed them, but the community of citizen-scientists at iNaturalist helped me out.

Red Knots are pretty impressive little creatures. They “travel some 19,000 miles every year, sometimes flying for six or eight days at a stretch without stopping to rest or feed.” A long-lived individual will fly the equivalent of a trip to the moon and (halfway) back.

In 2014 they were listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. “Since 2000 the rufa Red Knot’s population has declined by roughly 75 percent at key stopovers.” Their fate now lies largely in the hands of humans.

Below is a gallery of some birds I saw. I’ll ID them in the captions. Enjoy!

the future of transportation

Amara’s Law states: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

I stumbled upon these two videos recently and I thought they were worth sharing immediately. There is a lot going on right now in the clean energy transition.

The first is by a gentleman named Tony Seba. He starts his talk with a picture of New York City in 1900, with its streets full of horses. By 1913, the same street is devoid of horses and full of cars.

The second video is fairly similar (perhaps listen to a few minutes of each and pick your favorite presenter). Investor Ramez Naam dissects trends in the energy transition, and what that may mean for many industries (some not so obvious).

It is noteworthy that NIPSCO and Indiana are mentioned at 23:00, specifically NIPSCO’s decision to close down all its coal plants and replace with wind, solar, and storage, based on economic analysis. I’ll cue the video below to the point where Ramez mentions us.

an electric road trip adventure!

Last weekend, Liz (of Moontree Studios) and I went up to Michigan State University for one of my favorite conferences of the year, The Stewardship Network. It’s a great blend of non-profits, consulting firms, local/state/fed governments, and indigenous communities, all focused on restoring native ecosystems across northern Indiana and Michigan.

I’ve been going since 2013. I have a soft spot in my heart for it… the ecological restoration community isn’t very big, so we all know each other & enjoy catching up on research, new projects and the like. In 2016 I found a job posting on a piece of paper for an opening that was just 7 miles from my home, and here I am (thank you, Sr. Mary). As we say, “The Universe is conspiring!”

This year, I gave a talk on our research with co-locating pollinator plantings in and around solar energy installations.

After confirming with Liz that she was ready for an adventure, I decided to take our all-electric Nissan LEAF for the journey up to East Lansing. It has a 40 kWh battery, which is good for up to 150 miles in ideal driving conditions.

Knowing we would be setting out at highway speeds, in windy & cold January, our range was going be substantially reduced, maybe 100 miles when full. I wasn’t going to skimp on the heater, so I adjusted for that as well. I wouldn’t have sent anyone unfamiliar with the vehicle out in the wild like this, but we made a plan and hit the road!

Planning… courtesy of the (& app)

I thought it might be interesting to record some brief videos during our stops, so I’ll be posting them here as a way of telling the story.

I had an errand to do in the Mishawaka area, so I stopped to calculate our remaining range. Unfortunately, I’ve found Nissan’s range estimator to be overly optimistic, failing to take into account fast driving and cold weather. So as an easy rule of thumb, I just assumed each 1% of battery would yield me 1 mile, for a total range of 100 mi.

Mishawaka errand

We then needed to stop for dinner. We stopped at an Electrify America quick charging station at the Wal-Mart in Portage/Kalamazoo, MI. There is only a single plug that was compatible with the LEAF, but there are still so few LEAFs in the Midwest that I didn’t expect to find it occupied. (You can look on the app in real time to see the charger’s status). Fortunately, it wasn’t! We arrived with 13% battery remaining after covering 92 miles.

After sitting down for dinner, the car was back up to 97%, so we hit the interstate without delay.

I drove conservatively at first to build in some margin. It was fairly adverse conditions, chilly & windy but the road was dry. As we approached our destination, I hustled along so we could get to the hotel. (I had made sure to locate a charger some distance before our destination, just in case we needed to activate a Plan B).

The 82.4 mile trip took us down from 97% to 10% charge remaining. Dividing the miles by the % battery used, (82.4/0.87), this implies a range of just 95 miles on a full battery. Had I decided to plod along behind the semis on the interstate, we could’ve extended that, but high speeds & cold definitely take a toll.

I made sure to book a hotel with a car charger so we would wake up with a full charge and be off to Michigan State, which was several miles up the road.

The conference, as usual, was fantastic. It is always a weird mix of being energized and drained at the same time.

Observing plant response to thinning and burning in areas that historically had open oak woodlands and savannas.

We participated in a water ceremony led by indigenous leaders, who shared the water-songs they sung at the Standing Rock occupation. It was chilly!

Smudging with sage, before we received the water blessing.

Ok, time for the road trip back.

On our last morning, I arrived to the conference center with 90% charge. I had hoped to top off at a public charger there (Plan A), but the single spot was occupied. Not surprising when you have an ecological conference.

I snuck out to the garage at lunch and, after verifying that the other car was at full battery, I helped myself by unplugging them and trying to top off. But… then I ran into another problem. It had snowed several inches the night before when our car was charging at the hotel. Normally not a problem, but I neglected to take 5 seconds to brush the snow away from around the port before I unplugged it. As I unplugged, loose snow fell down into the open port. When I tried putting the plug back in, it only packed the snow in further, just enough to prevent the car from making a connection to charge. Yikes!

The universal, slower charging port is on top (J1772, speeds up to 7 kW). The LEAF-specific fast-charger is on bottom (CHAdeMO, speeds up to 50 kW).

Like I said, always have a Plan B! The fast-charging port was covered and fine to use, so we had to make an additional stop in Lansing to top off. We probably could have made it, but I didn’t want to cut it too close.

So that was an additional 1/2 hour. However, I powered through some e-mail clean-up (a never-ending task) so was able to put that time to use.

We arrived back at the same charger in Portage, where we were more than happy to grab dinner at the same Thai place, and pick up my daughter who was visiting grandparents nearby.

We initiate the charging session via a smartphone app, where we can see the current charging speed, payment, etc.

We ate dinner quickly and left as soon as we were done. It was cold (19 deg F) and we had a 25 mph headwind, so we added a stop at the University Park Mall. Fortunately, the roads were dry, so we hit the toll road and sped right along. This killed efficiency (see below) but we were eager to get home.

Our last stop was in Mishawaka. We arrived at 17% state of charge.

The charger didn’t hit the max speed of ~45 kW, and I’m not sure why, so it took about 25 minutes to get up to 53%, which I figured was enough get the last 34 miles home.

A picture of the dashboard halfway through the last charge session
Home sweet home.

So… let’s look at the numbers.

RANGE: We traveled 355 miles round-trip over the course of 3 days. We used 381% of the battery. Dividing miles/% used (355/3.81) implies a range of just 93 miles per full battery (100% charged) on a new 40 kWh battery.

Taking the most extreme segment, our last leg home from Portage was at high speeds and low temperatures, with wind, with an implied range of 86 miles. Ouch!

COST: Charging costs were $47.01 at the fast-charging stations. We picked up free charging at the hotel. So fuel costs ended up being about the equivalent of driving a minivan.

TIME: Because we were traveling around dinner time there and back, we were able to double up eating & charging, such that charging didn’t add any time to those stops.

We had a 1/2 hr stop in Lansing on our way out, which I used to check e-mail. And 25 minutes at the mall before the final stretch.

It’s not the incredible convenience of having gas stations every 5 miles like we’re used to. This infrastructure was built up incrementally over the last 100 years. We still need a lot more charging stations out there, of all types. But this trip would have been impossible just 9 months ago, before the Electrify America stations were up and running. Things are finally coming together.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is developing a grant process to deploy more charging infrastructure throughout the state. We just finished up the public comment period, and hopefully we will see applications for projects later this year.

FUTURE TRIPS: I hesitated writing this narrative simply because I expect the user experience will keep improving pretty quickly. Early adopters don’t mind waiting 25 minutes for the joy of driving emissions-free, but convincing the next swath of buyers will require additional improvements. Like it or not, we American consumers are demanding.

The good news is that of the 6 top-selling fully electric vehicles in the U.S., the 40 kWh LEAF is the only one with a range < 200 miles. There is already a 62 kWh LEAF available as an option (226 mi range). With this vehicle, we would have had zero waiting time during the entire trip, considering that we had to stop for dinner.

3 of the 6 top-selling models are Teslas, and they have their own proprietary charging network that is fast, ubiquitous, and reliable. This all greatly reduces logistical hurdles. But… for the rest of us, for now, some planning is still involved at this stage in the energy transition.

Sorry, I know this was a long post. Please let me know what I could’ve explained a little better. See you on the road!