INDIANAPOLIS — For the last week, Norm Welker has spent hours every day in the cab of his combine. He rises with the sun and travels up and down his more than 1,000 acres in Indiana, something he has done for decades.
This will be the last year that he and his family harvests corn. But Welker will still be a farmer — he’s going to farm the sun.
“We’ve always harnessed the sun, and have enough sun to grow a corn crop,” said 62-year-old Welker. “But now, we are harvesting it far more efficiently than we’ve ever done before.”
Welker is not alone: He is one of dozens of neighbors who are leasing their land for what will be the largest solar farm in the United States. At 13,000 acres — roughly 1,000 times the size of Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts — it is aptly named the Mammoth Solar project.
This project — a partnership between Indiana and Israeli-based Doral Renewables LLC — is expected to bring a roughly $1.5 billion investment into the state over the next five years. It will also mean huge financial gains for the local landowners as well as Starke and Pulaski counties, where the farm will be located.
“This is going to have major benefits,” said Lisa Dan, the executive director of the Starke County Economic Development Foundation. “If we need to be known for something, I don’t mind being known as the solar capital of Indiana and beyond.”
The project will be completed in three phases. The company broke ground on the first phase in October in a ceremony attended by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Israel’s ambassador to the United States. According to plans, all three phases should be up and running by 2024.
"It’s an incredibly electrifying day for the state of Indiana," Holcomb said in a release. “Knowing Indiana will continue to play a key role in the global energy sector while creating real change in our Hoosier communities is empowering."
In total, about 60 landowners between the two counties will be part of this project — bringing together a total of about 13,000 acres. That said, only about 20% of those acres will actually have panels on them.
Much of the land has forests and wetlands on them, which all will stay. There also will be a lot of green space for the setbacks from the edge of property lines and farm ditches as well as the area in between panels.
While panels will cover about only 2,500 acres, there will be roughly 2.85 million panels across the solar farm — enough to power nearly a quarter-million homes.
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Economic and environmental benefits
Not only are landowners getting green energy, but they also are getting big financial gains. The amount of money farmers will get for their land is significantly more than what they would get from either leasing it or farming it themselves, Welker said.
“I’m 62 years old and I have daughters and they are not interested in farming, so it wasn’t difficult for me to make that decision,” Welker said. “And it’s a better use of the land anyways and much more financially rewarding.”
The funding for this project is coming from private investment and the company itself, Cohen said, without the help of subsidies or tax credits. It will be a huge economic benefit for the individual counties, too.
There will be an initial influx of hundreds of jobs for the construction and then around 50 permanent jobs to operate the solar farm.
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This change also could mean huge environmental benefits, Cohen said.
By no longer farming the land, about one billion gallons of irrigation water will be saved each year. Roughly 2,000 tons of carbon emissions from coal will also be avoided annually. There will also be significantly fewer pesticides and fertilizers applied to the land, which often can run off and pollute surrounding waterways.
Still, the project hasn’t moved forward without a few obstacles along the way.
There have been some folks opposed to the project. One of the concerns raised is taking farmland out of production, though Welker said none of this land that will be used for the project is considered prime farmland.
In fact, much of the corn from this land currently goes to ethanol production. But as several auto-manufacturers announce moves toward being fully electric in just 15 years, Welker said this is a better way of producing fuel for the future.
While Mammoth Solar won’t forever be the biggest solar farm in the country as more projects continue to be proposed, Cohen said, it is putting Indiana on the map now.
Follow IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter: @IndyStarSarah.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Mammoth Solar project: Biggest solar farm in America coming to Indiana