Situated eighty miles east of Indianapolis, Randolph County, Indiana, is home to picturesque natural landscapes and rich agricultural heritage. And soon, the area will be the site of the state’s largest solar farm, one that’s projected to bring a host of environmental and economic benefits.
EDP Renewables, a global leader in the renewable energy sector, is moving ahead with its $242 million solar farm project expected to be operational by 2022. The Riverstart Solar Park will include 670,000 solar panels across 1,400 acres of farmland in the southwest part of the county. The park’s 200-megawatt capacity is said to be able to power around 36,000 homes.
EDPR estimates the solar park will save more than 355 million gallons of water annually in addition to offsetting carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
Randolph County, with its ethanol plant and two wind farms, is quickly becoming an enclave for clean energy projects. EDPR owns more than 800 MW of wind power in the state, and Riverstart will co-mingle with wind farms.
“We’re encouraged that Randolph County seems ready to embrace being home to the largest solar project in Indiana and ready to locate it in an already-built renewable energy cluster,” says Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the non-profit Hoosier Energy Council.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Indiana currently ranks 23rd in the nation in solar power with 444.84 megawatts installed as of 2019. That’s enough energy to power over 52,000 homes. The state has invested more than $683 million in solar energy, and prices have fallen 40 percent over the last decade, making solar power a cost-effective clean energy source for the region.
Riverstart will not only be energy efficient, but the owners plan to develop the land in a way that’s beneficial to bees, birds, and other wildlife.
County officials recently adopted an ordinance that requires all solar parks, including Riverstart, to plant native meadow grasses and pollinator-friendly wildflower plants or clover around solar panels.
Purdue University entomologist Dr. Brock Harpur wrote a letter to the county in advance of the decision:
“A recent study found that more than 50,000 acres of our Indiana conservation lands — healthy habitat for wildlife — were converted to row crop fields over an eight-year period. During this same time, the health of Indiana pollinators has plummeted. Native pollinator species numbers are lower than the number needed to pollinate crops, and managed species, such as honeybees, experience greater than average losses each year (as many as 63% of colonies are lost annually in Indiana). Among the primary causes of pollinator decline is habitat loss.”
Bees are essential for pollination. According to Greenpeace USA, “seventy out of the top one hundred human food crops – which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition – are pollinated by bees.” And the Earthwatch Institute recently declared bees, “the most important living species on this planet.” Randolph County’s decision to require solar parks to include pollinator-friendly vegetation will mitigate habitat loss and encourage healthy bee populations.
Further, native tall grasses will benefit local wildlife by providing food, nesting sites, and winter cover. Tall grasses are also easier to maintain than short turf grass, requiring mowing only once a year.
Along with other economic benefits, Hoosier Energy Council thinks Riverstart Solar Park could also attract eco-minded tourists.
“Should the Riverstart site be best-in-class in terms of its friendliness to wildlife, we would look forward to the cluster of renewable energy projects in Randolph County enabling the county to be a destination for renewable energy tourism, STEM education and wildlife education,” said Kharbanda. “Our hope, too, would be that renewable energy manufacturers would be drawn to Randolph County, as we have observed that component producers can cluster near dense concentrations of renewable energy development.”
Renewable energy sites around the globe are being marketed as tourist attractions, some with great success. Iceland’s President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, said the country’s clean energy economy has drawn a wealth of tourists, with power plants now being designed to accommodate visitors. And although it’s still considered a niche sector of the overall ecotourism industry, a recent academic paper published in Germany examined the viability of tourism at renewable energy sites in the Alps.
Whether eco-minded visitors flock to Riverstart or not, the project will surely provide hundreds of construction jobs as well as result in many permanent jobs after the construction phase is complete. Millions of dollars in property tax payments will go to local governments and school districts over the life of the project. It’s also estimated that millions will be spent in local communities within 50 miles of the solar park throughout the initial construction phase and beyond, a boon for the entire state’s economy.