Solar farm in the works south of Columbus

Tentative plans are on the drawing board for two significant projects southeast of Columbus.

The largest would create a solar farm near the existing Duke Energy Substation south of State Road 7 on the road leading to the Mineral Springs subdivision.

Attorney Eric Freling of Elexco Land Services, Inc. confirmed he has been talking to rural landowners on behalf of a client about leasing agricultural land for the solar farm project.

While Freling says he is prohibited from identifying his client, Bartholomew County Humane Society spokeswoman Cheryl Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said it was her understanding that Samsung Renewable Energy, Inc., located southwest of Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario, was heading the effort.

When asked about Samsung’s alleged involvement, Elexco co-owner Corey Herman also said he can’t identify any customer. However, Herman added the developer has told him it’s too early in the process to make any public statements regard the project.

Nevertheless, there are emails regarding potential property leases addressed to — or forwarded to — Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury that mention Samsung. One email states the goal is to lease a total of 1,200 acres in the vicinity of County Road 250E, south of the Bartholomew County Humane Society. Coincidentally, the Humane Society has just received grants to install their own solar panels intended to cut energy bills by one-third.

Last month, the developer had stated it had acquired leases on about 63% of the land required to build the solar farm, Zuckschwerdt-Ellsbury said. While the exact amount each property owner receives will depend on what the final cost of the development, property owners say they have been guaranteed a minimum $800 an acre annually, she said.

But even if the project is given a green light, it’s likely the solar farm remains years away from development because the developer is currently preoccupied with a similar project in northern Indiana, the Humane Society spokeswoman said. One email states the developer doesn’t anticipate the solar farm will be up and running until 2023.

Much of the electricity from the solar panels will be sold to Duke Energy and transferred to their large substation north of the Humane Society, the emails state.

“Solar farm developments tend to look for locations near substations, because, unlike wind turbines, the electricity they produce can tie directly into conventional substations,” Herman said.

Three years ago, Hoosier Energy opened Bartholomew County’s first solar farm at Interstate 65 and County Road 625S. The utility’s strategy, outlined by Josh Cisney, manager of renewable energy for Hoosier Energy, was to combine nonrenewable resources like coal, crude oil and natural gas with solar, wind, nuclear power, hydroelectric power and biofuel, Cisney said.

“I would suspect most utilities are making similar commitments (to what Cisney stated) to their consumers today,” Herman said.

While the idea of leasing land for a solar farm has reportedly stirred up some interest among farmers, one property owner — Loretta Vinson — says she’s still considering the offer. One reason is that she already has long-term plans for some of her property.

Vinson says she’s in talks with the Sycamore Land Trust to eventually develop about six acres into a facility like a public park east of the Humane Society. The Vinson Family Trust, established by the late developer Bob Vinson, owns two large parcels of land near the animal shelter on both sides of what is commonly called Mineral Springs Road.

“It’s going to happen,” Loretta Vincent said regarding the park. “But I can’t tell you when. Right now, (the Sycamore Land Trust) is working on some stuff, trying to figure out what’s needed.

Both Vinson and her father were inspired by the Touch the Earth Natural Area, just off State Road 46 west of Columbus. Known for its hiking paths and bird-watching opportunities, it is the largest piece of protected land in Bartholomew County at nearly 100 acres.

“It occurred to me that there’s no place in the county besides the Touch the Earth property where people can just go walk in the woods,” Vinson said.

Creating such a place would require the planting of several native trees and wildflowers, as well as installing walking trails, she said. But Touch The Earth was also an agricultural field before it was developed by the land trust, Vinson said.

One of 400 nonprofit accredited land trusts across the nation, the Sycamore Land Trust protects nearly 10,000 acres of land across 17 counties in southern Indiana.

This includes more than 1,500 acres along the Beanblossom Creek Bicentennial Conservation Area in Monroe County, and 1,043 acres at Columbia Mine Preserve in Pike and Gibson counties, managed as part of the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge.

Focusing on important habitats and watersheds in the region, Sycamore takes care of the land under its protection through stewardship projects such as planting trees, removing invasive species, and building hiking trails for thousands of visitors every year.