WHEATFIELD — The Wheatfield Town Council and residents in attendance heard about the solar energy farm planned in the area, including a portion that will fall into the town’s buffer zone.

Justin Wolf, project designer for Orion Renewable Energy Group, explained the company’s plan and what the project entails. He gave all in attendance a chance to ask questions.

Wolf said the company has been looking at Jasper County as a location for a solar farm for two to three years. They had previously considered the county for wind energy, but instead decided to go with solar. They have been contacting landowners who would be interested in leasing some land for the solar panels and they have enough land leased to start the process with more than 3,000 acres secured.

He said they are all private landowners in the vicinity of the NIPSCO coal generating plant, which is scheduled to shut down completely by 2023.

Orion Renewable Energy built the first wind farm in Benton County, but has since begun building solar energy fields as well. Wolf said the company received a tax abatement at the March 19 meeting of the Jasper County Council and is working with the town attorney, Luis Vallejo, in regards to permits needed through the town, as well as through the county.

“We were fortunate a lot of the landowners thought (solar) would be a good fit. If people don’t want it, fine, but people were pretty receptive about it,” he said.

The county approved a solar ordinance, giving them a pathway to getting permits to build the solar farm. However, the company won’t build until they have a buyer for the energy, which they believe will be NIPSCO once the energy credits run out for wind energy sources in about a year. Then Wolf said, they believe NIPSCO will turn its attention to solar power.

Orion wants to be ready to go once that happens; this is why the company is getting all it needs now.

Wolf explained solar panels are mounted on 4-by-4 steel posts driven into the ground from north to south, with 20 feet between each panel. The panels will tilt and follow the path of the sun as it crosses the horizon from east to west each day. He said there are no emissions from the panels, no water use, and the only people one will see will be the mowers and an occasional maintenance person.

He said the company wants to promote the natural habitat for song birds, Monarch butterflies, bees and other necessary insects by planting native flowering plants to establish a “solar park.”

At the end of 30 years, the usual time contracted for renewable energy, the solar panels will be decommissioned and the land returned to the condition it was before they panels came. Wolf said it probably will be in better condition because it wouldn’t be farmed over that period of years.

Wheatfield Clerk Treasurer Deborah Norberg asked how the panels stand up to wind. Wolf said they design the facility with the most extreme weather in mind, so tornado-force winds should not be a problem, plus the panels are insured. If damaged, the company will send out a maintenance crew as quickly as possible to fix it.

“It’s economical for us to do it as quickly a possible,” he said.

The pylon for the panels are driven eight feet into the ground and the panels’ above-ground level varies with the landscape. In flood zones, for example, the panels are placed higher than on higher ground.

A resident asked if the company builds access roads. Wolf said they have access roads that can accommodate light-duty pick-up trucks. The panels do not require heavy equipment for installation or maintenance like the wind turbines do. He said the equipment is no larger than farm equipment used around the area.

He said the benefits are the payments to the landowners and the expected $3 million invested in building the solar fields. He said it will lower the property tax in Kankakee Township by an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent. He said people living within the Kankakee Valley School District will also benefit tax wise, especially after NIPSCO shuts down the plant.

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