Indiana remains a fossil-fuel powered state, but as green technology has continued to evolve and advance, northeast Indiana is beginning to buy in, specifically in solar power.
Solar technology continues to improve and is becoming more cost-competitive with other materials such as coal and natural gas when it comes to electricity generation.
Although the cost of solar panels is still prohibitive for most individual users — recent state law changes in reimbursement for solar users has also reduced the financial incentive to produce energy at home — larger businesses and organizations are finding a place for solar in their energy portfolios.
Here’s a look back in recent history at some northeast Indiana agencies who have adopted solar power.
The 1-megawatt array at the South Milford lumber yard is one of the area’s oldest, coming online in late 2016.
But the savings have been real. In 2017, the company was estimating it would save more than $160,000 per year in utility costs thanks to the net-metering agreement it had for its field.
The first phase of the project involved mounting more than 660 panels to the south-facing roofs of six large storage buildings. The roof-mounted solar arrays can generate a maximum of 214,000 watts, according to Renewable Energy Systems, which installed the panels.
The second phase of the project comprised putting panels on ground-mounted arrays. Pilings were installed for 2,400 solar panels that can generate more than 782,000 watts.
Renewable Energy Systems said the system installed at Wible Lumber will last more than 30 years and generate more than 39 million kilowatt-hours of power over its lifetime. The clean, renewable solar energy generated by the system is expected to offset 650 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Fremont Community Schools
The monthly electrical bill for this northern Steuben County school district’s elementary/high school complex is just $24.
Prior to installing a 1.79-megawatt solar field, the district used to pay $32,000 per month in electric bills.
In combination with other power-saving projects like installing LED lighting, Fremont has drastically slashed its utility costs by capturing energy from the sun. The project broke ground in May 2017 and has been operational for less than two years.
“What I tell these guys is this is a legacy thing. These will be here for 30 years,” said Mike Robinson, Heartland solar project manager as construction was nearing completion in June 2017. “I think that’s very responsible. It’s going to benefit the community a long time.”
In May 2018, the school district was recognized by the Building Contractors Association of Northeast Indiana for its project.
Reliable Production Machining and Welding
From S.R. 3 in Kendallville, you can see a field of blue-tinted panels tilted up toward the sky.
Coming online in late 2017, Kendallville manufacturer Reliable Production Machining and Welding put in a 1-megawatt array to help power its facility. With about 3,500 individual panels, the solar power would help put a dent in the electric bill at the factory producing machined components for various industries.
“Reliable’s been here since 1946, and it pretty well lets everyone know that we’re going to be here for a while, which is important to employees and the city of Kendallville,” Chief Operating Officer Greg Salway said of the project in November 2017.
Renewable Energy Systems, the same group that built Wible Lumber’s project, installed the field at Reliable.
Reliable’s president, Chuck Drerup, and CEO, Tom Walterhouse, knew Wible Lumber co-owner Dennis Nowels. When they learned about the Wible Lumber solar field, they began thinking about how a similar project could benefit their operations.
“It piqued our interest,” Drerup said. “The more we looked into it, the more financial sense it makes for our long-term goal here at Reliable.”
A new solar field will provide about 75 percent of the electric this Auburn manufacturer utilizes at its facility.
Coming online December 2018, the solar panels occupy 1.23 acres west of the Tempus Technologies office. The company worked with AgTechnologies of Rochester to install them on the former concrete floor of the foundry.
“AgTechnologies welcomed the opportunity to work with innovators at Tempus Technologies to install this high-efficiency system. The cutting-edge reporting of energy provided will ensure maximum uptime production at minimal post-installation cost,” said Eric Straeter, AgTechnologies Inc.’s vice president of solar energy sales and support.
The system consists of 28 arrays, with 32 solar panels per array, designed to track the sun in the southern sky. It can generate 336,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
One of the newest solar fields in the area sits right off S.R. 3, right in the vicinity where DeKalb County, Noble County and Allen County all meet.
Installed in January, the new 1-megawatt array built by Wabash Valley Power will help feed solar power into a cooperative of REMCs, including Noble REMC, which serves the immediate area.
Frames and panels began going up in late 2018, with the field expecting to begin generating power early this year.
Noble REMC surveys its customers and interest in renewable energy sources has been rising. Cost for individuals to generate renewable energy themselves can be high between installation of equipment and ongoing maintenance, so having a major power generator invest in the infrastructure and add that renewable energy to its portfolio is one way to bring green energy to households.
“We’re listening to our members and how they want to see energy change,” Noble REMC communications specialist Kelly Lynch said. “This gives them an option to go green without having to make that huge investment.”
Built on an 8-acre plot, the array of about 3,600 individual panels is a good starting part for the local REMC to get into solar power, Mike Robinson of installer Bee Solar said.
“This is a fair-sized field for Indiana,” Robinson said. “This one here is a good entry level for the REMC to get a feel for what’s going on.”
City of Kendallville
Nothing is in the works yet, but Kendallville is conceptually exploring the possibility of a solar field on the site of the former McCray Refrigerator complex, which burned in a huge fire in June 2018 and has since been demolished.
“The city has reached out to a solar place and we’re making contact with (Indiana Michigan Power) and opening up the discussion of how that could work and who would draw from it,” City Engineer Scott Derby said in February.
With about 6 acres available, Kendallville might be able to establish around a 1-megawatt field.
Although conceptual at this time, Derby said power from a solar array near downtown could help power the city’s nearby wastewater treatment plant, potentially be put back on the grid to earn revenue for the city or even be used to power nearby homes and businesses.
The city is continuing to investigate the possibilities this year.