Solar on the horizon?

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Developers continue to show interest in Jay projects

Ray Cooney, Editor and publisher

Wednesday, November 25, 2020 11:02 AM

Jay County is being considered for solar facilities by at least four different developers. Those include NextEra Energy Resources and Scout Clean Energy, owners and operators of Jay County facilities Bluff Point Wind Energy Center and Bitter Ridge Wind Farm, respectively. (Scout Clean Energy)

Two wind farms are already up and operating in Jay County.

Solar could be next on the horizon.

At least four companies have shown interest in developing solar energy projects in Jay County and are at various stages in the process of pursuing those opportunities.

Two of those — Invenergy and Scout Clean Energy — have approached Jay/Portland Building and Planning director John Hemmelgarn to start discussions about solar facilities. He’s heard that two others — NextEra Energy Resources and another yet-to-be-identified firm — are also showing interest, but they have not yet approached his office.

Invenergy’s contact has been mostly to inquire about what is required based on the county’s commercial solar farm ordinance passed last year. The company also inquired about timelines that would be required for going through the approval process with Jay County Plan Commission.

Scout’s talks with Hemmelgarn have been limited to expressing interest in the possibility of a solar facility.

The developers

The reality of possible solar farm projects became clear in 2018 when solar easements being secured by Chicago-based Invenergy began to flow through the recorder’s office at Jay County Courthouse. The company has continued to acquire easements — it has secured more than 3,500 acres — under than name Invenergy Solar Project Development LLC.

Invenergy is a global clean energy firm with more than 150 projects on four continents. Its solar portfolio includes Hardin II solar farm in Marion, Ohio, and Grand Ridge Solar near Streator, Illinois.

Scout, developer of the new Bitter Ridge Wind Farm in southwestern Jay County, is a Colorado-based firm with five green energy projects in operation and a dozen more in development or construction. It currently has no solar farms operating, but on its website lists projects in Putnam County, Illinois, and Jay County as projects in development.

NextEra, owner and operator of Bluff Point Wind Energy Center that began operation in southern Jay County and northern Randolph County in 2017, is the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy. It has more than 100 solar facilities nationwide, with the bulk in California, Georgia and its home state of Florida. Those facilities range widely in size, including a 1.7 megawatt site in Versailles, Ohio, as part of its $83 million in projects in the Buckeye State.

The yet-to-be-identified company has kept a low profile for the time being. Hemmelgarn said its interest seems to be in the Dunkirk area.

The rules

While the wind ordinance was the focus of a study group and then the county plan commission for well over a year beginning in summer 2018, solar was also part of the discussion.

The topic of solar had come up several times over the years. So when the study committee was formed to discuss the wind ordinance, Hemmelgarn asked them to look at solar as well.

That proved to be a challenge, as there were few solar ordinances in place. Hemmelgarn was unable to find any in Indiana and only a few in Illinois. Those were used as the basis for the initial rules, which focused on fees, setbacks, buffer areas and fencing.

The rules define solar farms as those on 5 or more acres. They would require a $20,000 application fee and a permit fee of $1,750 per megawatt hour.

Setbacks for solar facilities were set at 25 feet from property lines of non-participating landowners and 50 feet from the road right of way. Access driveways to the facilities require a 50-foot setback from property lines.

Solar farms are required to have a 25-foot-wide buffer that consists of “a compact evergreen hedge or other type of green foliage which shall be along the road frontage and perimeter of adjacent single family dwelling.” A fence, 6 to 8 feet high, is required and must be set back at least 30 feet from any property line.

While there was opposition to Jay County’s second wind farm and a lot of discussion surrounding the updates to the ordinance, the newly written solar rules passed with little comment from the public.

Hemmelgarn credited the county plan commission for pushing to get an ordinance in place.

“And (former Jay County Plan Commission member) Shane Houck was the one who said, ‘We need to have an ordinance for the solar, because it’s coming,’” Hemmelgarn added. “And I’m glad we do.”

He said the ordinance has helped because it gives him something to refer back to when developers or landowners call to ask questions.

What’s next?

Details about the plans for potential solar developments in Jay County vary in their specificity.

Invenergy did not respond to emails and calls for comment last week. But, the company acknowledged its interest via a statement in January.

“Invenergy is in the early stages of exploring an opportunity for a solar project in Jay County,” the statement said. “One of the initial steps in this exploration is for us to engage with interested landowners to get a better understanding of what a project could look like.”

Hemmelgarn noted that the firm has received a permit for a test site and has talked about putting it up in the spring.

NextEra also confirmed its interest in a project locally, but offered no additional details.

“We are currently exploring the potential for a solar project in Jay County,” said Conlan Kennedy, senior communication specialist for NextEra. “We do not have specific project information at this time, as this is an early stage of the development process and details have not yet been determined.”

Scout has been the most open about its plans, with project manager Pete Endres talking about a possible solar project when he was in Jay County as Bitter Ridge was preparing to go online in September. Since then, a project named Sun Chief was added to the Scout website and Endres provided additional details in an interview last week.

“Over the course of developing the Bitter Ridge project, specifically the utility-scale solar industry in the country has really boomed. Over just a few short years, solar has become very cost competitive,” Endres said. “Given the landowner interest that we had there, given the trend toward solar in the energy industry, given our local relationships in Jay County, we saw the opportunity to add a solar project to the development work that we were doing on Bitter Ridge.”

He added that having the infrastructure in place for the Bitter Ridge facility results in cost savings for a potential project.

Scout has acquired the bulk of the land — 800 to 900 acres — it would need for the planned 100 megawatt facility. It has also filed for interconnection — the process of getting into the utility grid — and conducted preliminary studies.

The next step is to finish land acquisition and the interconnection process, which involves studies by the grid operator and the transmission owner (American Electric Power).

If everything goes well, Scout could approach county commissioners, council and plan commission as early as next year regarding the various agreements and approvals that would be needed to construct a solar facility. Construction could begin as early as 2022, but could also wait until 2023 or ’24.

The facility has been named Sun Chief — the sun obviously referencing solar energy while “chief” is an homage to John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the man for whom Jay County is named.

“Given our experience and relationships in Jay County, we’d be excited to bring another investment in clean energy to the area.”