RENSSELAER — With standing room only, a large crowd gathered to learn more about the planned solar array farm that will affect their lives in Kankakee Township, which will be greatly affected when NIPSCO closes its coal generating plant in Wheatfield. With two board members absent, the three man panel listened to several speakers who gave information on what the proposed solar farm will do, how it will look and what the plans are for decommissioning at the end of the solar panels’ life span.

After listening to the experts who came on behalf of Orion Renewable Energy Group, and asking questions, the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals turned the conversation over to the public with specific rules to follow, including manners and civility. At one point, two men were lead out of the courthouse by special deputies in charge of security.

Emotions ran high as residents questioned the purpose of the solar farm, the safety and other issues they had. BZA member Jim Martin asked if there would be batteries to store the energy produced by the solar panels. The response was there are none designed for this system. The plan is to tap into the transfer lines already in place at NIPSCO so the energy produced flows straight into the system.

Resident Marla Terpstra was concerned with the chain link fencing that will surround the fields. She asked how migrating animals would be affected when the area is closed off to them, especially smaller animals that can’t jump over a 6-foot fence. It was explained that the fencing is meant to keep people out, not animals, and that the fencing would have larger openings at the bottom for the animals to fit through.

Dan Preston, who works with the Jasper County Economic Development Organization, said he has been with the JCEDO since 2017, and has worked with the Orion company during that time. He said they have been very forthright and responsive with information throughout this years-long process. The company began speaking with landowners regarding leasing their property to build the solar farm in 2016, before the announcement from NIPSCO was released.

Jerry Bechtold was concerned with hazardous material leaking into the ground water from the solar panels because he expects they are made in China. He asked if there would be testing done on the ground water.

It was explained that the solar panels have a low risk for leaks but there is a contingency plan in place if anything does happen with the panels. They are encapsulated in multiple layers. The panels can crack but do not shatter. The county is named as a beneficiary should anything catastrophic happen to the panel arrays.

Some residents questioned the location of the solar panels in an area where sunshine is in short supply during the winter months. The answer was the energy supplied by the solar panels needs to the consumers. The panels will be useful during the summer when the days are longer and consumers are using more electricity to keep their houses cool.

The panels are not constructed on the site, but are already assembled when they are set up in the field. There is 24 hour monitoring done through computers and the company will know right away if something has been damaged. Crews will be sent to fix the problem as soon as possible, which is in the company’s best interest to keep the panels maintained and running.

Dave Duttlinger, who has agreed to lease some of his farmland to Orion said he had many sleepless nights before making the decision. He and his wife talked to family in Spencer County where there is a solar field. He said he had multiple options to secure the livelihood of their farm, including adding livestock, but the family chose to lease some land that are low producing fields. “This is a win-win for the township community and for the property.” He offered to share the vast amount of research he and his wife had done before they made their decision.

People were concerned the property values would go down, but the Orion expert on home assessments studied other areas where solar fields are near residential areas and none of the areas showed any decreased values and some had increased.

Two letters in support of the project were read to the board.

John Duttlinger said he is a tenant farmer and his landlord talked to him before choosing to lease land to Orion. He said the landlord will make more money leasing the Orion than to him and he wasn’t going to be selfish about it. “I’m not so selfish to make a living off of my landlord’s back,” he said.

A couple seated in front of him were making comments as he spoke and as the two men came face to face, they were ushered out of the room and the courthouse. Before the incident, Duttlinger said his son had looked into Orion and said it’s a “top notch” company.

Mary Soliday, an attorney for Orion, explained the company is not a partner with NIPSCO, nor does the solar farm depend on NIPSCO to buy the power.

A question was asked about the safety of the thousands of sandhill cranes who migrate through the area. The response was the birds have adapted to solar fields in Florida and will likely adapt to the fields here. The birds eat bugs and the plants that will be grown in the area of the solar panels will attract the type of bugs the birds like to eat.

The panels do not behave like mirrors, as they are meant to absorb the sun’s rays not reflect them. They will not heat up and burn the birds. It was explained glare from the solar panels should not affect the residents either. The panels will be turned to face the sun and any reflection should go into the sky. If there is a glare, the panels can be adjusted to reflect back into the sky rather than into homes.

Although the land will continue to be zoned for agriculture use, the solar farm will be assessed as a utility the same as NIPSCO’s plant is assessed. Soliday said the money from this assessment will stay in the county. A financial study done by the accounting firm used by the county council showed a 5.5% increase in residents’ property taxes, which will help a bit when taxes go up after NIPSCO closes.

One woman in the audience said her son works at NIPSCO and just signed a seven year contract to continue working so she was skeptical that the plant will actually closes in 2023 as the company has stated.

Many in attendance said they hadn’t heard anything about the project until they received the letter about the BZA meeting. Soliday said Orion has been to several county council meetings, and has had legal advertising in the newspapers. There were 230 certified letters sent to residents who would be affected by the solar farm, which expects to use over 800 acres of 2,500 acres leased for the solar panel arrays. This newspaper has had articles about the Orion proposal as well. An open house was held recently at the Wheatfield Library for residents to come and ask questions also. Justin Wolf, the project designer, said there were about 100 people in attendance at that meeting.

BZA Chairman Scott Walstra asked where the power produced in Kankakee Township would be used. The energy will go to local use first, then on to the next source if there is more energy than is being used.

Martin was concerned the special exception required for the solar panels to occupy agricultural land would cover all 2,500 acres. Soliday said the 850 acres shown in the map would be covered by this and if the company wanted to add more, would have to come back to ask for another special exception. The BZA attorney, Todd Sammons disagreed, saying according to the application, all 2,500 acres could be used for the solar array.

Sammons also answered questions about changing the zoning to industrial rather than having the special exception. He said if the zoning were changed, any kind of industry could build there without having to come before the BZA and that is why it was left as agriculture. When the solar panels are decommissioned, the land will return to farm use.

After two hours, the three BZA members in attendance voted to table a decision until their July 15 meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. at the courthouse. He said the board wanted to do more research on the subject. Walstra said there would be no public comments at the next meeting but all are welcome to attend. Sammons asked the crowd to not call the board members to try and influence their decision. They are required to come up with the decision individually and are not allowed to speak to each other about it outside of the meeting.