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NWI sun strong enough for planned solar farm?
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NWI sun strong enough for planned solar farm?

As scarce details of plans for a $75 million solar farm in Schneider trickle out, one energy expert cautioned such an ambitious project may struggle in sun-weak Northwest Indiana.

Joan Brennecke, director of the University of Notre Dame's Energy Center, praised investment in solar power but said the Hoosier state isn't the ideal spot for it.

"It's hard to make a solar farm economically viable in areas where you don't have good solar intensity," Brennecke said. "We don't have a whole lot of sun."

Lake County Solid Waste Management District Executive Director Jeff Langbehn confirmed Powers Energy of America wants to build a 137,000-panel farm adjoining Powers' proposed trash-to-ethanol site in Schneider.

Earl Powers, president of Evansville-based Powers Energy, told Langbehn construction could begin within 90 days, and the site could be the largest solar farm of its kind in the United States.

Powers did not respond to a call seeking information Thursday.

A spokesman for SunDurance Energy, Powers' reported partner on the farm, said the company "is not at liberty to comment on the proposed project."

Brennecke referenced a U.S. Department of Energy map of the country detailing solar resource potential, with the most solar-wealthy areas in red, the least in green and blue.

Indiana, Brennecke noted, is a "weak, little, wimpy green area."

Solar projects tend to be more popular in sun-rich states such as California and Arizona, she said.

Powers' plan reportedly would generate up to 100 megawatts of power.

On the sunniest days, solar panels used in research on a Notre Dame building generate roughly half of their potential 50 kilowatts, Brennecke said.

With possible underwhelming results, and the high cost of the panels themselves, Powers' project could face, "a very long payback period, to get their money back on their capital investment.

"It's surprising (if) it would be an economically viable initiative, unless they could be getting some sort of rebates or incentives to help pay for the panels," Brennecke said.

Brennecke said states often offer such solar incentives, but Indiana isn't one of them.

Indiana Economic Development Corp. spokeswoman Blair West said her agency has not been involved in bringing the solar project to the state. IEDC is the state's commerce agency.

West said a growing number of Indiana companies manufacture parts needed for solar energy projects, but those parts typically are sent for use in more sun-friendly states.

Langbehn said he was told the same investors funding Powers' $280 million waste-to-ethanol plant in Schneider are expected to pay for the solar farm.

Powers previously has declined to name investors, citing confidentiality agreements.

 

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