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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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.
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.
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)