Aug. 06 --Hoosier Energy is exploring putting a solar farm west of Ellettsville in Monroe County , but recent zoning outcries and the need for a new zoning ordinance to fully accommodate the proposal may leave the utility company's expansion into renewable energy in the dark.
Hoosier Energy's plans are part of an effort to construct 10 one-megawatt solar arrays throughout southern Indiana and southeast Illinois before the end of 2016. While the comprehensive proposal is still in the works, the Monroe County Plan Commission is looking at creating a new solar farm zoning definition to safeguard for the future.
"We are investigating several sites to put in a solar array near Ellettsville ," said Mary Lynn Beaver , communications specialist for Hoosier Energy. "We are adding several solar farms, 10 altogether, located throughout our service territory; some are being constructed and some are in the permit process. Zoning requirements (and the) processes vary depending upon the county where the proposed site is."
Hoosier Energy and its 18 electric cooperative members are currently investigating potential solar array sites in Morgan , Owen and Monroe Counties, but the fight in Monroe County may be tougher than anywhere else, thanks to the backlash the utilities service is facing from neighboring residents in its attempts to re-zone its former headquarters.
The public utility company is investigating more than one potential site in the Ellettsville area, but the Monroe County Plan Commission's work session Tuesday night focused primarily on a plot of land at the intersection of Ind. 46 and West Flatwoods Road . Zoning restrictions caused commissioners to consider amending current landscaping stipulations, setback distances and other issues that didn't apply to the unique aspects of a solar farm.
"Our urban definition of landscape may seem silly," said Monroe County plan director Larry Wilson . "If you have an isolated site in the middle of a field, you don't need the buffering you would in an urban setting."
Such a use typically would require the property, now a farm field, be zoned for commercial or industrial uses.
County officials support exploration of alternative sources for energy -- the county office building roof now has its own solar array -- but the outcry that accompanied the utility's request to rezone the site of its former headquarters building for light industrial uses has given plan commissioners pause.
The consensus now appears to be that a new zoning classification for renewable energy sites would head off confusion. But not all renewable energy processes are as passive as solar panels -- wind turbines, for instance, loom over the landscape, threaten birds and bats and create wind noise -- so officials worry that a blanket alternative energy classification would not be adequate.
Two of the proposed 10 sites are already under construction; one is in New Castle at 1-70 and Ind. 3 and serves the Henry County Rural Electric Membership Cooperative , RushShelby Energy and the Whitewater Valley REMC. The second, along I-69 on the Greene / Daviess county line, serves the Utilities District of Western Indiana and the Daviess-Martin REMC.
While the configuration of the solar arrays will be customized for efficiency at each $2.7-million-dollar site, all 10 will have 4,320 panels and are being proposed at high profile, high visibility areas and high traffic sites near interstates. Hoosier Energy's projection for each site estimates about 1,000 kilowatts of energy production, and the collective annual output of all 10 solar farms will provide approximately 20,000,000 kilowatt-hours of energy for the 300,000 consumers served by Hoosier Energy members.
"The main community benefit is an education on how solar works, how they connect to the grid and how this renewable energy resource can be used in times of need," said Beaver. "Solar's intermittent nature -- highly intense during the day -- coincides with peak demand times. Its availability can help offset the need to call on other, more expensive resources."
Solar energy is a part of Hoosier Energy's "all of the above" strategy, a system of energy production that generates power through a diverse portfolio of methods. Hoosier Energy is targeting growth in the renewable energy portion of that strategy and aims to increase that portion of their portfolio by 10 percent by 2025. The utility company's expansion into renewable energy, despite its proximity to the recent Clean Power Plan regulations instituted by President Barack Obama earlier this week, was a decision made by the board of directors in 2006.
To complete the 10-megawatt project before its 2016 deadline, zoning decisions and construction will have to move quickly on multiple sites simultaneously.
"We're on pace, though the first one had a little bit of a setback because of the rain," Beaver said. "It only takes about 90 days to put the arrays up, and then it's about a month for them to be connected to the grid. Once the site selection and the permitting process has been done, they go up fairly quickly."
Further discussion on the development of Hoosier Energy's proposed Ellettsville solar array will occur at the next Monroe County Plan Commission meeting Aug.18, in the Nat U. Hill meeting room of the courthouse at 6 p.m.