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Hendricks County solar farm to feature largest array operated by an Indiana energy co-op

By Karl Schneider, Indianapolis Star,

2023-02-08
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A new clean-energy project near Danville is converting about 60 acres of land from growing traditional farm crops to harvesting power from the sun.

The Hendricks Power Cooperative is partnering with Carmel-based Solential Energy to build a $12 million solar array that will provide 7 megawatts to the co-op’s 35,000 members in Hendricks County and western central Indiana. In Indiana, one megawatt can power more than 100 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Named after the family that donated the land northeast of Danville, the C&B Graham Solar Energy Project should begin generating power this summer. It will be the largest solar array operated by a member-owned rural electric co-op in Indiana, and help Hendricks Power diversify its power sources. The co-op currently distributes electricity generated from coal, gas, solar and wind purchased through the Wabash Valley Power Association.

Planning for the project began in 2020 when the two partners started working with Hendricks County to rezone the site. The eventual ordinance, signed by county commissioners in 2021, established an "overlay" so the land retains its agriculture-residential zoning but allows for the solar array.

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The special zoning sets out rules the solar array must comply with, including setbacks and development standards for accessory structures, according to county documents. Fencing and landscaping buffers are also required.

Last week, workers were attaching solar panels to large pilings they previously drove into the ground across two former farm fields on North County Road 400 East. The setup closest to the road is about half the size of the second array farther back on the 60-acre property.

When work is completed, the array will include nearly 20,000 motor-driven panels that can rotate 120 degrees. They will be secured to long rows of brackets bolted onto pilings. The orientation will allow the cells to follow the sun’s east to west movement across the sky.

Both sides of the individual panels — each about 3 feet by 5 feet and weighing 40 pounds — can convert sunlight to energy and contain 144 photovoltaic cells. They are framed in aluminum and covered with an anti-reflective coating to maximize efficiency.

The rotation of the panels should dump any snow off that might build up during the winter, said Solential Energy CEO Jim Shaw said. Each panel also emits a little heat while converting the sun’s rays, which should be enough to melt snow on their surface.

The array will be remotely monitored and will have cameras throughout, so any snow buildup on the ground that could prevent a full rotation can be avoided.

The energy costs from the solar farm are comparable to Hendricks Power's current costs for power from other sources, said Greg Ternet, the co-op's CEO.

The partnership is set to keep the site running for 25 years, with an option to renew for three, 5-year terms. By then, the project costs will have been recuperated through power sales, Shaw said.

He said some may question if the technology put up today will stand up for all those years. Even with an annual degradation of 0.5% each year, he said, the site will still be performing at 85% capacity.

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The solar panel manufacturer guarantees the products last about 25 or 30 years, he said. The three inverters on the site — where all the electrical components are located and the AC-to-DC conversion happens — are guaranteed for 20 years.

“So that's why that back-end ability is there for the utility to say, ‘You know, it is producing power, we understand the bigger game and we're going to utilize that and we're going to keep on going,’” Shaw said.

As the project reaches the end of its contract, or at any point throughout, it will be possible return the acreage back into farmland. The pilings are not cemented in, so there are no long-term effects from the array, Shaw said.

“We just pull it all out,” Shaw said.

The process of decommissioning solar farms at the end of their lifespan is becoming more common in conversations as more arrays are installed in Indiana and across the U.S., Shaw said.

The Indiana Senate in January unanimously passed SB 33 that would direct state agencies to study the best ways to decommission and recycle solar panels, as well as wind power equipment. The legislation is now pending before the House of Representatives.

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at karl.schneider@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

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