A solar project in Knox County dubbed ‘Ratts 2,’ which is expected to power the average electricity consumption of about 28,000 Hoosier homes annually, was recently approved in a 7-to-3 vote by the Knox County Area Plan Commission, despite some residents’ concerns.
“It’s a very difficult issue. There’s pros and cons to it … . There’s a lot of people in opposition. We have to allow for new technologies, and it’s difficult to strike the balance,” explained Colt Michaels, executive director of the Knox County Area Plan Commission.
The $128 million project will sit on about 1,200 acres of land. It will include solar panel arrays, an operations and maintenance building, inverters and access roads.
One issue is whether the project is compatible with existing land uses around it.
“And that’s the reason why we had three members vote against it,” Michaels said. “The land is zoned agricultural, but there are residential homes there.”
House Bill 1381, which establishes state regulations for solar and wind electric generation systems, might also get in the way of the project.
The bill, authored by Rep. Ed Soliday, establishes “default” siting standards for wind and solar energy projects and essentially prevents local governments from banning the construction of renewable energy sources.
“We’re all aware of House Bill 1381, and it was briefly brought up. Everyone, and myself included, is in opposition of the state exerting control over local land use,” Michaels said, adding the state’s proposed standards are less strict than the county’s ordinance.
For example, the installation set-back from homes is 200 feet in the local ordinance, but only 150 feet in the proposed bill.
“Our ordinance also requires a decommissioning plan for the project. We would require 100% of costs of decommission to be paid up front. The bill does not require 100% of such costs to be paid up front,” Michaels said, noting the bill requires costs to be paid, but not all at once.
“We have a lot stricter standards and we would have to lose that with the bill being proposed,” he said.
Some Knox County residents, such as Donna Taylor Bouchie, of Wheatland, are also concerned about the solar project.
"I appreciate a couple of area planning committee members asking tough, detailed questions to the company in order to obtain clarity. Though some questions were never clearly answered, the permit was approved, but not unanimously,” she said. “Many neighbors are not against a solar project, but against stretching it over six miles, intertwining in and out, impacting 30-plus homes, and even crossing a highway. It just doesn't make sense. It's like the $2.5 million gift in lieu of 10 years of taxes outweighs logic.”
Audrey Harper, of Monroe City, expressed environmental concerns about the project.
“I did not appreciate some of the more ignorant quotes related to agriculture and how some believed that with installing solar panels we would be harvesting the sun,” Harper said. “Agriculture is the science, art and practice of cultivating the plants and livestock. I wonder if some have even realistically considered the environmental effects these solar sites will play, not only on our agriculture, but the fishing and game as well.”
Harper is also concerned about her proximity to the project as well as its duration.
“I'm not sure what some may consider long term, but in my book 35 years to half a century is definitely long term; and in my case, it will be indefinite. The landowners adjoining my property are selling out to Tenaska, the big energy company from Nebraska,” she said. “My fate has been sealed since the permit approval. The APC didn't think about those who could be affected by a purchase agreement, only land lease agreements. I'm not sure when I will truly be able to enjoy my property again, if ever, thanks to the passing of this permit.”
The Knox County Council unanimously approved the economic development agreement for the Ratts 2 Solar Project in October 2020. The county also finalized a solar ordinance to guide certain technical aspects of the project. Under the agreement, the project will pay $2.5 million in economic development payments to Knox County over a six-year period. Ratts 2 is expected to contribute an estimated $16 million in tax revenue over the project life, according to a press release.
An economic study conducted by Gnarly Tree Sustainability Institute in collaboration with Dr. Kenneth Richards of Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, reported that the project would bring broad economic benefits to Knox County, which include the following: 188 full-time construction jobs, full-time operations and maintenance employment and annual expenditures on goods in excess of $363,000 over the project's expected 35-year lifespan. The project will also pay an estimated $1 million in lease payments annually to local landowners.
Environmental benefits of the project will include production of zero-emissions power that will not contribute to local pollution or global climate change; power generation without noise or smell; and progress toward Indiana’s clean energy and climate goals.
Under the terms of the Power Purchase Agreement and according to a press release, Hoosier Energy will purchase 150-megawatts of the power generated by the Ratts 2 Solar Project.
Arevon Energy Management and Tenaska are co-developing this project and were instrumental in procuring and negotiating the terms of the PPA. Construction is expected to begin in 2022, with commercial operation anticipated in 2023.
Hoosier Energy's CEO, Donna Walker, said in the press release that the power purchase agreement “is an important step toward achieving our long-range plan of adding diverse projects to our energy portfolio that focus on lowering costs for our members and reducing our carbon footprint."
“It’s gratifying to see utilities like Hoosier Energy realize the environmental and cost benefits of renewables and take swift action to add more renewables to their generation mix,” said Steve Johnson, senior vice president in Tenaska’s Strategic Development & Acquisitions Group. “The Tenaska Solar Ventures team looks forward to working with Capital Dynamics to complete development and bring this project to fruition.”