‘It’s got nasty’: the battle to build the US’s biggest solar power farm
When proposals for the largest solar plant ever conceived for US soil started to gather pace – a plan that involves spearing several million solar panels into the flat farmland of northern Indiana – something in Connie Ehrlich seems to have snapped.
Ehrlich, 63, is part of a longstanding farming family in Pulaski county, the site of the new solar project, but doesn’t live in the county and previously only rarely dabbled in its usually somnolent local politics. She has carved out a comfortable life in a sprawling mansion set on 10 acres (four hectares) of land, just outside the city of Lafayette, and is known locally for her donations to medical research and her small fleet of deluxe cars with personalized license plates.
Related: Inside America’s groundbreaking solar-powered health facility
But to Ehrlich the idea of transferring 13,000 acres of prized farmland to solar energy production seems to have been so unthinkable that it demanded an extraordinary response. Within months of the project being proposed she had mobilized her wealth to fund a flurry of lawsuits, spearheaded a sometimes-vituperative pressure group and spent $3m buying new plots of land, including a cemetery, on the fringes of the project.
Ehrlich even acquired an office nextdoor to the solar developer’s own premises – and in its window a cartoon has been placed showing Joe Biden shoveling cash into the mouths of solar developers, depicted as pigs in a sty.
The solar farm, which could have its goal of completion next year delayed because of the lawsuits, has stirred up strong feelings among some in Pulaski. “It’s got nasty, really nasty,” said Derrick Stalbaum, a hog farmer who also acts as president of the county’s board of zoning appeals. “It’s surprising as we live in a quiet area with a huge sense of community usually.”
The opponents of the solar project, a $1.5bn venture appropriately called Mammoth that is set to span an area almost as large as Manhattan, say they are defying an egregious assault on time-honored farming traditions and are standing up to a newcomer that threatens to warp their pastoral way of life with Chinese-made technology. “We need to protect America’s farmland,” Ehrlich wrote in a February post for the Pulaski County Against Solar group’s Facebook page. “Not only from being sacrificed for the inefficient, unreliable energy generation, but from foreigners’ interest!”
The ongoing fight is a sobering reminder of how Biden’s ambitions for a mass transition to renewables, aimed at averting the worst ravages of the climate crisis, will in significant part be decided by the vagaries and veto points of thousands of local officials, county boards and Connie Ehrlich-style opposition across the US.
Localized battles over new solar projects threaten to proliferate as the industry, buoyed up by the huge tax credits available for clean energy in the Inflation Reduction Act, seeks to expand. Over the past year, solar projects in Ohio, Kentucky and Nevada have all been delayed or sunk by irked local people. Ordinances restricting solar, wind and other renewable energy facilities have been passed in 31 states.
The prospect of solar energy projects occupying a chunk of American land has stirred unease among farmers, and even among some environmentalists, that valuable forests, wetlands and fertile soils may be sacrificed. If the US really is to zero out its carbon emissions by 2050, researchers at Princeton University have estimated that solar production could have to grow more than 20-fold, occupying an area that, put together, would be equivalent to the size of West Virginia.
“We are absolutely seeing local opposition to solar arrays across the US,” said Samantha Levy, climate policy manager at American Farmland Trust. “About half of solar development is going on the best, most productive farmland and that is causing some concern because it’s not like we are making more land. We need to have a smart solar buildout and not hollow out these farming communities.”
But for developers, the challenges posed by opponents such as Ehrlich are infuriating. “It’s just throw spaghetti and see what sticks,” said Nick Cohen, chief executive of Doral Renewables, the Israeli-founded developer behind the Mammoth project in Indiana. “It only takes one person to file a lawsuit and this feels like a one-person crusade to burn down the town.”
Cohen said his dealings with Ehrlich have been “civil but direct” and that Doral holds out hope of being an amiable neighbor to its foe. The project won’t fell trees or disturb any fragile ecosystem, he pointed out. “If people have real concerns we can work it out,” Cohen said. “But the conduct here is so irrational and perplexing. Connie and [a] small group of followers are working against the best interests of the entire community.”
The episode is also a demonstration of how an era of toxic politics and vicious online vitriol can quickly sour a community like Pulaski. Some people have left their church because of arguments with other congregants over the solar plant, while even family members have been at odds with one another.
Stalbaum, the head of the board of zoning appeals, said while most people in the county are either supportive or apathetic about Mammoth, a faction of people are so outraged they have taken to following and videoing him and other members of the board, or idling in cars outside their homes.
Anonymous phone calls, meanwhile, were made to a school where Stalbaum was previously a teacher to cryptically warn that he was not suited to be around children, he said. On Facebook, supporters of the project have been called “roaches” and “traitors” and, in one instance, seemingly compared to Adolf Hitler. “I can only imagine how intimidating he is around children!!” one poster wrote about Stalbaum.
This is no longer really about the solar applications; it’s more about driving the community apart
“This is no longer really about the solar applications; it’s more about driving the community apart,” said Stalbaum. “I have been attacked pretty hard for this, simply because this project meets our county requirements.”
Much of the debate in Pulaski county about solar has become entangled in national resentments, with several unprompted attacks on Biden in public hearings for supposedly forcing through the Green New Deal, or for allowing Mexican immigrants to somehow take precious farmland along with the solar developers. In Pulaski, a county where Donald Trump outperformed Biden four to one in the 2020 election, flags hanging outside homes declaring “Let’s Go Brandon” and, less euphemistically, “Fuck Biden” are commonplace.
Pulaski county appears to be an otherwise unassuming location for what will be one of the largest solar projects in the world. A rectangular slice of agricultural northern Indiana, Pulaski is home to about 12,000 people, a number that is declining, and a lot of corn. Peppermint is grown here, too, and sold to the Wrigley Company for gum flavoring.
A ripple of excitement was felt in nearby Fulton county in 1978 when the partial skeleton of a hulking mastodon was discovered in a drainage ditch, exquisitely preserved in peat. It was this 10,000-year-old specimen that would give the Mammoth project its name, although Doral was more excited by quirks of infrastructure and geology – the area has flat, sandy ground ideal for solar and is a meeting point for two vast electrical grids, called MISO and PJM, that service tens of millions of Americans and will allow Mammoth to dump converted sunlight into both of them for consumption.
In July 2019, Cohen was introduced to a farmer named Norm Welker. Welker’s land, Cohen said, was “right on the bullseye, exactly where you’d want to be.” Transmission lines run through Welker’s fields in Starke county and, crucially, Welker himself has been unsentimental about turning away from half a century of planting and harvesting corn on this land.
“You couldn’t dream of a better project for us,” said Welker, a 62-year-old who has a short, clipped moustache and is almost more enthused by the idea of solar than the developers themselves. The money helps, of course – Welker’s 1,075 acres in Starke county will be leased for the next three decades at $1,000 an acre a year. “It’s five times what I’d make through corn,” he said. “It’s crazy money.”
Construction began on Welker’s land earlier this year and a grid-like pattern of pilings driven into the soil is already in place. Long steel tubes are placed horizontally upon the pilings, with brackets on top to affix the solar panels, which are awaiting clearance for import from Malaysia. Wiring dangles from some of these poles, and cables lie in partly dug trenches, ready to connect the output to an inverter which will then help propel electrons into the grid.
The panels will automatically rotate east to west, chasing the sun throughout the day, shaking off snow in the winter. But the whole system is fairly simple to slot together and is shorter than the serried ears of corn Welker would normally grow here. “It’s so passive, I mean, it’s even more benign than wind,” said Kevin Parzyck, a senior project manager for Doral. A few years ago, officials in Pulaski rejected an application to build wind turbines in the county. “With wind you’re actually spinning a generator,” Parzyck said. “The crickets make more noise than these solar panels do.”
To Welker, solar is an evolution of farming rather than a betrayal of it. He already harvests the sunlight for his crops, he reasons, and considers fears of food shortages by taking land out of production overblown given that 40% of all US corn is already mashed up for another form of energy – ethanol, which is added to gasoline. Farmers are also routinely paid by the federal government to keep tracts of land free from crops, in order to bolster the price of corn.
The rows of nodding metal and glass will contrast with the surrounding fields of corn, but it’s a moot point as to whether they are more unnatural or harmful to the surrounds. Wild grasses and wildflowers are springing up around the metal pilings, bringing back insect life to a landscape that is typically bombarded by pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. America’s corn belt, which stretches from Indiana to Nebraska, produces a fifth of the world’s maize, a stunning feat of agricultural might that has deforested large areas, stripped away topsoil and made the land, by one measure, 48 times more toxic than it was 25 years ago.
It blows my mind! It’s my farm – why do I need my neighbor’s permission to do this?
“I’m gonna retire, I’m gonna restore habitats – it’s likely there’ll never be a cornfield here ever again,” said Welker. He has a further 500 acres in Pulaski county he hopes to give over to solar, too, but there he faces the tenacious obstacle of Ehrlich, whom he knew as a neighbor when she went to community college in Indianapolis and then married Donald “Jerry” Ehrlich, founder of the Wabash trucking company.
Now the relationship is somewhat strained. “It blows my mind! It’s my farm – why do I need my neighbor’s permission to do this?” Welker asked, suddenly enraged. “I’m not doing any harm to you. What’s the deal with this woman? These people are nitwits.”
The Guardian made multiple requests to Ehrlich and her lawyer for comment. There was no response to these requests.
The Mammoth project – which will generate 1.3 gigawatts of renewable energy, enough to power more than 200,000 households annually in coal-dependent Indiana – is split into three distinct areas encompassing dozens of landowners, which looks on a map like a collection of Jenga blocks scattered on to the landscape. Two of these areas are in Pulaski, which has a county ordinance that requires special hearings to consider changing the use of land for solar. This opportunity to stymie the project was seized upon by Ehrlich and her group.
The first hearing – by the county’s board of zoning appeals, a five-member body that issues typically mundane decisions about land use – in July 2020 was eagerly anticipated. Outside, people livestreamed proceedings via their phones and speakers were set up so the overflow crowd could listen in. Inside, Stalbaum tried to maintain a sense of order.
A procession of local residents stepped up to speak at the microphone, the supporters of solar stressing it would help sustain farms for future generations and raise vital tax revenue for ailing public services. Opponents, meanwhile, were more pointed, often invoking a divine plan for this land and taking aim at local officials who would stray from this.
“I don’t want my back yard to be a guinea pig!” exclaimed Riley Cervenka Tiede, Ehrlich’s niece, a recording of the meeting shows. “As a farmer I take great pride in the beautiful land that God has blessed us with and believe it should stay to be used to grow crops.” Tiede warned that property values would decline if solar arrived – there is somewhat threadbare evidence of this – and raised the spectre of a disastrous fire.
On the Facebook streamed comments, people pondered if birds and plants would be fried by the glare from the panels, perhaps in response to a different, and unusual, type of solar farm in California that caused some birds to spontaneously combust after flying into its beams of concentrated sunlight. “Firefighters, police, please stand up,” Tiede implored, as applause thundered for the first responders. “Their lives are more important than a few landowners getting money!”
I believe the land should be used the way God intended it to be
When Nathan Origer, head of community development for Pulaski, attempted to explain that revenue from Mammoth could be used to help lower taxes for landowners – Mammoth will plow about $1.5m a year into Pulaski’s coffers, about a fifth of the county’s revenues from income tax – a man off camera shouted, “You’re full of shit!” Mark Cervenka, Ehrlich’s brother who farms land in Pulaski, said locals had been ambushed by a “disturbing, frightening and disgusting” solar plan. “I’m a farmer and always will be. I believe the land should be used the way God intended it to be,” he added.
Things get so heated at one point a woman stormed toward the board members and started shouting indecipherably at them while holding up her phone. Stalbaum asked two burly sheriff’s deputies to remove her and muttered, “You’re not helping your cause here.”
The board voted unanimously to allow a special exception for the solar project in the wake of the gathering, although with conditions, pushed for by Ehrlich and allied local resident Jennifer Knebel, that new trees will block the sight of the solar panels, noise will be kept to a minimum and wide buffer areas of open land will be kept at the project boundaries. Just 20% of the project area will be covered by the actual solar panels, which are disparagingly called a “sea of black glass” by opponents.
Ehrlich has not been sated by this partial victory. According to Knebel, the group has spent “hundreds of hours” pondering the issue, usually coming to hearings with reams of notes to read out. Doral has had to muster a cadre of experts to counter claims the silicon and aluminum panels will give off deadly radiation, or that they will kill sandhill cranes by blinding them or will leach poison into the soil.
“I feel like they got just about everything they could get apart from outright banning solar,” said Origer. “But whatever everyone did, it wasn’t enough. I have to conclude that it is at least partially an ideological thing. Ms Ehrlich simply doesn’t think that solar is good.”
In a flurry of online posts, op-eds and speeches, Ehrlich has claimed solar developers “prey upon financially struggling counties”, questioned the efficacy of renewable energy and complained that the energy generated won’t be used by the county itself, a striking protest given Pulaski farmers’ routine sale of corn to be consumed across the US.
“How can some landowners believe they have the right to do whatever they want with their land while destroying someone else’s property and quality of life?” Ehrlich posted in July last year on her group’s Facebook page.
Public records show that Ehrlich has spent about $3m to buy three plots of land in Pulaski since 2020, including a cemetery near the town of Francesville. Some of the land is within a mile of the planned Mammoth project. Meanwhile, Ehrlich and eight other complainants have filed lawsuits to try to overturn the approval of the land use, dispute a tax abatement given to Doral and stop the county’s subsequent move to make it easier for developers to set up in Pulaski county.
In September, Ehrlich got some reward for her efforts – the Indiana court of appeals ruled that Mammoth had not submitted a complete application for the project’s zoning. The state supreme court may now be called upon for further judgment, although the developers do not expect to be halted by what they frame as an administrative redo.
“It doesn’t make much sense to me that she would purchase land for very high prices in the neighborhood if she thinks property prices will go down because of the project,” said Cohen. “She hasn’t been willing to compromise to discuss a mutual solution. All of the millions of dollars we are spending on lawsuits, that could’ve been put into the community. There’s nothing I would like more than to have them as our friends.”
A detente doesn’t appear likely, however, if you take a trip to Doral’s project headquarters in Winamac, a small town that is Pulaski’s county seat. On the main road into Winamac is a huge billboard that reads “No to industrial solar” and, once you get to the Doral office, the opposition is hard for the developers to ignore. Ehrlich spent $100,000 on a former cigar store, public records show, that is a footstep from Doral’s own office. The windows are plastered with anti-solar posters, including the cartoon of Biden shoveling cash into the mouths of solar developers depicted as pigs.
“Protesting – that’s Connie’s job,” said Welker, as he looked at the strange juxtaposition of the two offices. “Nick and I stopped in one time and tried to have peace talks, but she’s just, ‘No. I’m here to save Pulaski county from solar panels.’ That’s her job.”