Company seeks to bring solar panel farms to Northwest Indiana
By Amy Lavalley and Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondents February 10, 2012 4:22PM
Econs Energy has plans for solar farms in Northwest Indiana. | Provided photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 14, 2012 8:07AM
A Minnesota-based company sees a golden opportunity for solar farming in Northwest Indiana, courtesy of the sun and NIPSCO initiatives.
Ecos Renewable Energy has proposals out for solar panel farms in Hobart, Merrillville and Portage Township.
The plans are similar in nature, and if approved, would allow for solar energy to be sold to Northern Indiana Public Service Company. NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said customers can receive up to 26 cents per kilowatt hour.
For the most part, outside of public meetings, Ecos officials have remained tight-lipped about whether they have other solar farms in mind in this area or anywhere else in the state. The officials have said they are serving as development consultants for private investors.
“We have been asked by our clients not to do any publicity whatsoever,” said Brad Wilson, project manager for Ecos.
But NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said the utility has received several other proposals for solar farms, “quite a few of which are from this developer.” He wouldn’t say where those solar farms would be located. Meyer also said Ecos is acting as a developer, and the utility company’s agreement is with a different customer, whom he would not name.
Research by the Post-Tribune suggests Ecos also has plans for the area served by Indiana Michigan Power, in the Fort Wayne and South Bend markets, and Indianapolis Power and Light.
Wilson declined to comment on whether Ecos had other projects planned in the state and said little about the Porter County Board of Zoning Appeal’s Feb. 1 decision with a 4-1 vote to shut down a proposal for a solar farm in Union Township, after nearby residents said they were concerned about dropping property values and noise from equipment on the site.
“Any project can run into opposition along the way,” Wilson said by phone a week after the meeting.
Ecos does not appear to have a company website, but its parent company — and presumably the investor in the solar projects in the region — is Allco Renewable Energy Limited, based in New York.
According to its website, www.allcorenewableenergy.com, Allco is a “renewable energy firm that develops and invests in companies and projects across the broad spectrum of renewable energy technologies, including wind, biomass and solar power.”
Officials at Allco did not respond to a request for more information via email, and no phone number is available for their corporate headquarters on Wall Street.
Outland Renewable Energy, a sister company to Ecos, has a wind turbine project in Clinton County, according to the website for the Indiana Office of Energy Development.
Ecos also has filed as an intervener with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in rate cases involving Indiana Michigan Power and Indianapolis Power and Light.
According to documents filed Oct. 18 with the IURC, “Ecos is currently developing solar and wind powered electrical generation facilities in Indiana, some of which are located in (Indiana Michigan’s) service territory and/or could deliver energy to I&M.”
Thomas Melone, chief executive officer of Ecos and president of Allco, also testified in June in a rate case involving IPL.
“We do not have any information on Ecos other than that they’ve intervened in two cases,” said Danielle McGrath, manager of external communications for the IURC.
Once again, Wilson, the project manager for Ecos, had little to say about its plans. “The company is making a decision and not making any public comments at this time.”
Ecos’ plans are being well-received in Lake County so far.
Ecos’ Lincoln LLC received unanimous approval from the Merrillville Town Council to install more than 6,800 solar panels on 20 acres south of 8520 Grand Blvd., which will provide enough power for at least 200 homes. Chris Little, another official with Ecos, said the project is a $6 million investment.
Meyer said Lincoln Solar will generate about 1.5 megawatts.
The proposal met with no opposition from the public and was welcomed by the council.
“It’s not often the town gets a $6 million project that’s clean and energy producing and creates jobs for nine months,” Councilman Shawn Pettit, D-6th, said at the time.
While the facility itself will only be manned by one person, Little said 25 people would be employed during construction.
Ecos also is seeking to install 4,576 solar panels on about 10 acres of a 50-acre parcel zoned light industrial on 49th Avenue in Hobart. The project has not had a public hearing yet, but city officials spoke favorably about the project.
“I find this very, very appropriate for the land,” Councilman John Brezik, D-5th, had said at a plan commission meeting.
Ecos also proposes a 1.5-megawatt solar farm on the southwest corner of Robbins Road and North County Road 450 West in Portage Township. The Porter County Board of Zoning Appeals deferred a decision on the facility at its Feb. 1 meeting, pending more information on landscaping to screen the solar farm and the zoning of nearby land that is within Portage city limits.
The proposed solar farm would occupy approximately 11 acres and have 6,864 solar modules on an aluminum and steel racking system, according to documents filed with the Porter County Planning Commission.
If approved, construction of the facility would take three to four months, and power would be sold to NIPSCO for 15 years, though it is Portage Solar’s intent to continue generating power after the power purchase agreement expires.
If Portage Solar cannot continue to sell power there, the project will be decommissioned and all the equipment on the property will be removed.
The Portage Township plan is about one and half times larger than the one turned down for Union Township; that project, had it moved forward, would have cost about $5.5 million.
J. Putnam Robbins, who lives about a mile from the Portage Township site, is in favor of the project and the capital investment in the community.
“You want to bring industry and business and commerce into the community, and that’s how to do it,” he said, adding it’s a new technology that doesn’t have the drawbacks of other energy sources. “This is totally different, and this is a small facility. They’re willing to take the risk and make the investment, so we’ve got to support them.”
Tim Cole was the loan member of the Porter County BZA to support the Union Township project. Cole, the plan commission appointee to the BZA, lives in Liberty Township and retired as an engineer with Bethlehem Steel. He has a solar-powered electric fence for the horses on his property.
“I invite science and technology that could be an improvement to our quality of life, and solar energy is one of those,” he said.
The BZA has to weigh concerns about such projects with the investment they bring to the community, the impact on an area and whether a proposed land use is justified, Cole said.
And while solar farms are new to this area, they were developed more than 50 years ago, and the technology has changed very little, Cole said, raising the specter of new technology taking over after the Portage Township project, if passed by the BZA, goes in.
“Will we be left with something obsolete?” Cole said.
Solar and the region
Ecos officials say they’re drawn to the region because it has a similar amount of sunlight and weather conditions as Germany, which they say is the world’s leading producer of solar power.
Meyer said Ecos is also one of the companies lured to the region by new programs it offers that were just recently approved by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, The company offers either credit or cash to customers based on the amount of renewable energy they generate. He said Ecos will be getting a credit from the utility.
Meyer said these are pilot programs for now.
“We’re trying to assess the programs themselves, how effective they are and how they will work,” Meyer said.
William Hutzel, a mechanical engineering technology professor at Purdue University West Lafayette, said while Indiana is no Arizona when it comes to sunshine, it does get more than some countries that have had success with solar energy.
He said federal, state and private incentives, like the ones with NIPSCO, have generated a lot of interest in solar farms among larger companies.
As for the effect on the region, Hutzel sees no downsides.
“There are no moving parts, no emissions, no noise. It should be as benign as possible. The panels are made of silicone so there are no toxic chemicals,” he said.
He called this a good first step.
“In 10 more years you’ll see a lot more solar panels,” Hutzel said.