social distancing

“Social distancing” is a work of the Moontree Studios community, a place where people can awaken to their creative potential and sow the seeds for a more mindful, compassionate and sustainable Earth Community.

I wanted to respond to the exigency of the moment and get this out there. All jerky camera motions and lack of editing are my responsibility alone. I’m still on the learning curve with the drone.

Stay your distance
But keep your heart
Now is the time
To make new art!

Get Outside! (an impromptu resource for local kids)

Quite suddenly, everyone in Indiana is homeschooling! Or at least e-learning. Schools are shutdown, and the Governor has ordered residents to shelter in place for 2 weeks, with a few exceptions.

No play dates. Nowhere to take the kids. What’s a parent to do?

Kids in our local area don’t live in high rise apartments, so there’s something green nearby for everyone. Spring is breaking, and it’d be a shame if we all missed it. For those with the time and resources, parks are still open. Closer still, why not step outside the front door and see what we could find?

a whole tiny world, under a rock

I decided to create a series of short videos for kids to watch, especially those in Marshall County and the surrounding areas. My goal is to 1) inspire kids to get outside & make their own discoveries and 2) start asking questions.

Please share with local families and school teachers. I would love for them to send me questions that they have about the things I talk about, or whatever they see outside. Then I can do custom videos on what that child or class finds interesting.

I’m going to see if I can work with some editing software to include photos, voiceovers, etc. I struggled to find a name & format that was interesting without being to campy, but oh well. But for now, time is of the essence and I just wanted to put this out there and see if anyone was interested.

Inquiries & comments can be sent to athada at poorhandmaids dot org. Thanks!

the entire world is focused on one problem right now

Image may contain: people playing sports and text

COVID-19 (coronavirus) is proving to be the great equalizer. Regardless of income, religion, or nationality, the virus is replicating across the worldwide human population by the rules of biology. We are not above the rules, outside of the ecosystem. We are part and parcel of it all.

Many of us can barely remember what day of the week it is. Absent our rituals, it’s hard to recall that we are still in the time of Lent. “For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). COVID-19 is now this worldwide reminder of our universal earthiness. We are all in this together.

a new volunteer learns about the best practices for prescribed fire, used to maintain this patch of native grasses and wildflowers; March 2020

For a global people, how one nation faces the challenge now affects the next. And the next. Cuban doctors are flying to Italy to care for the sick. My friends in Bolivia have already altered their greetings, foregoing the customary cheek-kissing. Trade and travel have been upended. Research scientists are furiously coordinating efforts and publishing data as fast as possible. Automobile factories are switching their production lines to produce life-saving respirators and masks for healthcare workers.

A Hoosier lockdown

Yesterday, Governor Holcomb issued an official directive for Hoosiers to stay at home, effective tonight through April 6. Unless we are participating in “essential business and operations” or “essential activities,” we should stay at our residence and keep 6 ft away from others at all times. Any gathering of more than 10 people is prohibited. You can read the FAQs here.

The directive notes that elderly and sick persons – who are at higher risk from COVID-19 – are urged to stay home to the extent possible and only leave to seek necessarily medical care. Now, I know several people dear to me who are in their 60’s who wouldn’t think themselves “elderly,” (heck, a few in their 80’s too). But it bears repeating that the virus is no respecter of semantics, of country, religion, or bank account: now is the time to shelter up and let others keep things running.

It is widely understood that these types of measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and prevent our medical system from being overwhelmed.

Does this mean we can we stay connected to the natural world in this time of pandemic? Fortunately, the stay at home order provides a provision for outdoor activities.

It’s a good time to be extra cautious in your outdoor activities, for now is not a time to have a hospital trip. But solitary wildflower walks are definitely still in order. Spring is not taking the year off.

monitoring frog populations on the first day of spring, 2020; their chorus continues through the COVID

With the decrease in economic activity and vehicle traffic, it occurred to me that this spring, it may be that natural communities around us will see the lowest levels of pollution since before World War II. Light pollution, roadkill, noise pollution, particulates, toxic waste… the onslaught is having a modest reprieve. Grid operators in the Midwest have already noticed a reduction in electricity demand. UPDATE: U.S. traffic is down >30%, along with concomitant pollution.

A time for solidarity

Much is made of the inclination of some, in times of crisis, to loot, pillage, and fight ruthlessly for our own survival. Undeniably, that’s one aspect of human behavior. I’m told that guns and ammo are sold out right now. So be it, if that comforts someone to sit in a quiet home with their boxes of steel, watching Netflix.

But social observers have noted that a far more common impulse in times of crisis is solidarity. There are numerous examples. Rebecca Solnit has studied and written about the impromptu, spontaneous examples of compassion that emerged from Hurricane Katrina.

I’ve been calling my father more in recent weeks. He also has been calling on friends. One of his made a list of people and called each of them, catching up with those who had grown apart. Local grocery stores have created “senior shopping hours” at the beginning of the day, so that the most vulnerable of our community can remain distanced from those of us who may be carrying and spreading the disease unknowingly.

Imagine if care and concern for our neighbor were a regular feature of our everyday, non-COVID society.

“We the People” print by Shepard Fairy, 2017

But the fog has lifted, and it turns out we are all in the same boat, U.S.S. Earth.

Advocates and activists have been shouting for decades to remind us that all is not well, that we have ongoing crises of poverty and income inequality, a racial wealth gap that has never been reconciled, a crisis of loneliness and alienation, a crisis of dehumanizing institutions, twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

As a biological entity, the COVID-19 virus is the most pressing & visible manifestation of our ecological crisis. But it not the only one.

Those of us with enough resources, we could safely ignore those crises (for a time), relocate from a hurricane, hire a flotilla of lobbyists, socially distance ourselves in affluent ghettos, hire someone to separate our hands from the dirty work.

But COVID-19 dissolves these illusions and reminds us that we are the world’s most widespread and social species here on this spaceship Earth. Not just an aggregation of individuals, but a single body with many members (1 Cor. 12).

And so, here we are, together.

“earthrise” 24 Dec 1968

Connecting with the Natural World in a Time of Pandemic

It’s now clear to (almost) everyone that we are living in one of those generation-defining times. From the small organization and government office, to the largest worldwide coordinating networks, now is the moment where leadership matters.

I read a Twitter thread by a virologist on the recent disease models. They noted, “This is the Apollo program of our times.” I thought that was very fitting. Only the stakes are higher, the timeline more compressed, the scope more global than ever.

So, I’m an ecologist. Not a healthcare worker, government official, or other key person in the time-sensitive COVID-19 response. While virology is a key component of ecological systems, I’m just another person that needs to work from home, tend to those within my case, and order take-out.

Though I haven’t been in my work office, I’ve continued with outdoor work, which is mostly solitary. As for exposure to disease by occupational risk, loggers (which I’ll use as a stand-in for ecologists) rank at about zero.

So, from the plywood-and-sawhorse desk that I hastily erected in my garage, my professional advice (to those that are able) is this: get outside.

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) practicing “social distancing” west of the Ancilla College residence hallfs, 20 march 20

Most of us will not be suffering acutely from COVID-19 itself. But the economic and social disruptions are affecting us all. Many of us are anxious and worried, we’ve lost sense of time and the normal patterns that sustain our mental-emotional-spiritual health.

There are innumerable studies that link our health with our exposure to the natural world, from walks in the woods to simply having a tree outside your window. Volumes have been written about this (see especially Richard Louv).

UPDATE: Restoration ecologist Steve Glass reminds us that we are facing the triple threat of species extinction, climate change, and COVID-19 all at once. It is time to stay engaged, and to live up to the moment we are in.

The Audubon society notes that birding is the perfect activity for a time of social distancing. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a treasure-trove of resources, including their very helpful Merlin Bird ID app.

After all, you get COVID-19 from other humans. You can’t get COVID-19 from a tree, a stream, or a bluebird (or a Corvid, for that mater… undoubtedly blue jays and crows can outsmart viruses!).

You and I need exercise anyway. In addition to eating healthily and getting adequate rest, we stand a better chance to fend of attacks on our immune system (“Yes, You Can Take Your Kids For A Walk” NPR).

a Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), waiting patiently in a vernal pool, on the first day of spring, 19 march 20

iNaturalist has ways to explore nature while you are at home, by photographing and recording your observations and letting the global online community help you identify what you see. They have a smartphone app too, of course.

The Indiana DNR is keeping outdoor spaces open for people to use. Arnold Schwarzenegger is encouraging people to get out and bike. Just a reminder that we should be making sure our activities are as low-risk as possible during this time. It is definitely not the time to put any extra hospital visits on a healthcare system under stress, so be safe.

There’s been a passage floating around on social media the last few days. I don’t know the context in which it was written, or who the author even is. But I thought it a very helpful image for this time in which we are in solitude, together.

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
~Kitty O’Meara

Moontree Studios wetland reveals interplay of plants, animals, soil, and water, the day after a prescribed fire; 19 march 20

spring is here

There’s a lot going on right now (more on that soon).

But I didn’t want to let today pass unnoticed.

It’s the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. Every human on Earth is getting the same amount of daylight today, if not the same quantity of solar radiation (it’s gloomy and rainy in northern Indiana).

Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) press upward at the Thada Homestead, 15 March 2020

Our feeling of time has been off the last 7-10 days. Weeks and months of change compressed into a single day. Stock markets down, then up a bit, then down again. Schools closed, restaurants shuttered, new rhythms being established with uncertain time frames.

Anxiety has increased. The unknown, the probable, and almost certain. The anticipation. We are even now in the season of Lent, contemplating our own mortality and earth-ed-ness.

the belfry of the Ancilla Domini chapel, 18 March 2020

Today we would normally be assembling at Moontree Studios for an equinox reflection. Instead, we are dispersed and not physically gathered.

It is not an escape from the pain, certainly, but to me there is a comfort in the consistent rhythms of all things wild. No, not that they are not changing, and sometimes irreversibly so, but there are laws that govern and patterns that re-emerge again and again. Not unlike music… always using the same notes and scales, but with infinite possibilities of composition.

alert, in a pasture; 17 March 2020

Before rushing to comprehend – and quicker still to judge – we need to first be fully present.

Take a deep breath, and consider the peace of wild things (and listen to Wendell Berry read his poem by that name).

We will get through this, together.

the remnants of a spring burn at Moontree Studios, 18 March 2020

news round up (1st day of spring edition)

NYC pays big bounties for reporting idling engines; D.C. makes it easy with 311 app (Electrek)

Watch the mechanical rhythms of a recycling plant morph into a surreal singalong (Aeon) This was so beautiful!

Indiana Bill Seeks to Reduce Firefighters’, Hoosiers’ Exposure to PFAS Contamination (Indiana Environmental Reporter) House Bill 1189, which awaits final approval by the governor’s office, would limit the use of potentially toxic firefighting foam in training

Vanishing Natural Areas (Dr. Steve Glass blog) If it seems to you that there are fewer forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural places than there were a few years ago, you would be right. And if you think there is a lot more areas in need of restoration, then you would also be right—and distressingly so... A report issued last year describes the situation: “The United States is quietly losing its remaining forests, grasslands, deserts, and natural places at a blistering pace. Every 30 seconds, a football field worth of America’s natural areas disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development”, according to a report issued in August 2019 by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Indiana’s Hoosier Energy to retire its 1,070 MW coal plant by 2023 (Utility Dive)

In a major shift, the MISO territory has 57 GW worth of big solar projects in its interconnection queue (PV Magazine)

Report: Snowfall rates decreased significantly in fall, spring over last 50 years (Indiana Environmental Reporter)

Social tipping points are the only hope for the climate (Vox) A new paper explores how to trigger them.

Pesticide Police, Overwhelmed By Dicamba Complaints, Ask EPA For Help (NPR) Every summer for the past three years, the phones have been ringing like crazy in the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. Farmers and homeowners were calling, complaining that their soybean fields or tomato plants looked sick, with curled-up leaves. They suspected pesticides from nearby farms — a kind of chemical hit-and-run.

The toxic legacy of old oil wells: California’s multibillion-dollar problem (LA Times)

Western Monarch Butterfly Population Still at Critical Level (Xerces) Population has not rebounded from all-time low. We must take action now to save the western monarch migration.

Indiana’s state insect — the firefly — is facing extinction (IndyStar) Scientists say loss of natural habitat, pesticides and artificial lighting are all playing a roll in the insect’s fate.

Last-Ditch Effort: America has a fertilizer problem. This ditch in Indiana could provide a solution. (Grist) Featuring a project from Kosciusko County.

Achieving Peak Pasture (Breakthrough Institute) In the last 20 years, something truly remarkable has occurred, something that few predicted: the amount of land devoted to grazing animals to produce meat and milk has begun to shrink across the world.

Ecology in a Time of Coronavirus

Our brains don’t do well with understanding exponential growth. This is why the Coronavirus pandemic is so concerning. It’s invisible, it’s nowhere, and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere.

We are among the planet’s most social beings. We are not just an aggregation of individuals, we are a human community. And so it feels awkward to keep escalating our anti-social response to this invisible threat that has not affected anyone within our social sphere (yet).

But I encourage you to read about reports from Italy. Not to panic, but to consider the gravity of the situation and how we might respond in order to protect the most vulnerable among us. The situation continues to evolve, as Governor Holcomb just ordered all Indiana dining establishments to cease dine-in food service, and Indiana just registered its first death.

I’d like to point you to a brief reflection on exponential growth by our co-conspirator Steve Owen of the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE). (As you may remember, AIRE was instrumental in helping us execute Phase 2 of our solar energy initiative at The Center at Donaldson).

Steve created this graph of what happens when you accumulate pennies and double it every day for a month.

Likewise, consider a bacteria that doubles daily as it fills a petri dish over the course of 30 days (the graph looks the same as Steve’s, just sub bacterial cells for pennies and make the end point 100%). On day 25, the bacteria is still barely visible, filling only 3% of the surface area of the dish. It is only by the end of the 29th day that 50% of the dish is covered.

Again, our brains are used to thinking like this, but it is nonetheless a fundamental truth of our universe (math, physics, biology, etc).

Another colleague just posted a reflection on the coronavirus and ecological systems. He’s a top-notch ecologist & botanist, go read it. In it he links to this AMAZING outbreak simulation from the New York Times. Seriously, science-communication can be very tough and this is some of the best of the best.

So: all indications are that we need maintain a minimum 6 ft buffer around us as a form of “social distancing“. In the last 24 hrs, I have still had people extending hands to shake, grabbing me by the shoulders, etc… out of an abundance of caution, we have to stop this, immediately. I have been using the “namaste” and folding my hands together in greeting: “The God in me greats the God in you.” This is a traditionally Hindu greeting, but of course makes sense for Christians as well (Col. 1:27, Romans 8:9-10, 2 Cor. 13:5, etc). People around the world are coming up with very creative alternatives.

So… how is this all affecting our ecological relationships?

The social distancing & shutdowns that are necessary to slow this pandemic are also causing economic turmoil. This is perhaps an unavoidable result, given how intertwined our lives are, but this adds additional stress to those individuals and businesses who are already on the edge financially.

This decrease in industrial activity and travel has led to measurable declines in pollution over China, and now Italy. Air pollution kills 7 million people each year, accounting for 8% of all deaths worldwide (this is a combination of ambient air pollution found in cities, as well as indoor exposure from dirty cook stoves). I have to think that this global pandemic will also cause a dip in net CO2 emissions for 2020. This pullback, in combination with an oil-price war between Saudi Arabia Russia, may incidentally spell the end of U.S. shale oil and hasten the energy transition (Gasoline in Plymouth is at $1.64/gallon, and world markets now under $30/barrel).

These are only a couple of the ramifications. I am reminded that everything is connected. Moreso, everything is connection.

the waning gibbous moon, framed by snow-capped seed heads of Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), 14 march 2020

I have been pondering the disruption that human societies are facing while watching Sandhill Cranes descending, spring wildflowers already bursting, Eastern Bluebirds searching. All continuing their relentless forward march, around and around their own circle of being. Migration, mating, reproduction, photosynthesis, metabolism, signaling, vocalizing, senescing, dying. Seemingly oblivious to our Great Turning, as we so often are of their own pandemics and crises.

Spring will arrive Thursday, regardless. Equi-nox, the great equal-izer. Every latitude, every crooked, every wetland, every hidden hillside, every remote island, every skyscraper, every family taking an idle walk, every king and pauper… all will receive +/- the same length of sunshine and nighttime.

a fire-scorched sandy hillside reveals a mammal’s burrow, 13 march 2020

In my next post, I will share about how we can continue to engage with nature around us during this time of human isolation. Fortunately, there are many opportunities.

crane camo (video)

I read some years ago that Sandhill Crane feathers are gray, and they only acquire their rusty brown color from rubbing mud on their feathers.

I’m glad that someone long ago (before Western scientists “discovered it”) observed this story and shared it. Despite traveling many times to see the cranes migrate by the tens of thousands, I just have never seen the behavior myself.

Until recently!

On Feb. 19th I was down at the wetland behind Moontree and saw some Sandhill Cranes silently descending, their legs dangling. I froze and waited for them to drop into the grass. I took the long way around to the other side of the hill so I would not disturb them.

When I peaked up my head, there they were. You’ll have to forgive me for not having better video equipment, but I took two videos. Look in the lower right quadrant of each. Then watch again and see how many Sandhills you can spot.

late winter, in photos

Ok, no time for commentary. Here are some photos of my goings-on in recent weeks. I’ll let your mind fill in the gaps. Some of these moments brought me giddy laughter, others a brief moment of quiet satisfaction and calm.

A single picture can be filled with a lifetime of stories.


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.

… … …

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)