LAOTTO — Talk about a good day to generate some solar energy.
With the sun blazing overhead on a hot Wednesday morning, representatives from Wabash Valley Power, Noble REMC and other electric cooperatives officially dedicated the 1-megawatt LaOtto Solar Generating Station.
Located just off the east side of S.R. 3 on C.R. 70 in DeKalb County, the solar array started under construction in December and was completed shortly after. It took a few months to connect panels to the electrical grid and prep to begin generating energy, with the solar field switched on and collecting energy starting in April.
On Wednesday morning, representatives from electric providers, state lawmakers and others gathered to celebrate completion of the project and talk about the impact it will have for energy customers.
The project was built by Wabash Valley Power, a nonprofit whole power producer that provides energy to numerous utilities. The solar field however is hooked into Noble REMC’s infrastructure and is able to be distributed across the region to customers who would like to purchase green energy through a co-op solar program. Users can purchase 300-watt solar “blocks” as part of their monthly electric consumption.
Andrew Horstman, manager of load response for Wabash Valley Power and emcee for the event, noted the LaOtto facility is Wabash Valley’s largest at this point. The cooperative has five others in Indiana, one in Illinois and two in Missouri, with several more arrays in development.
Indiana District 17 state Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, kicked off a line of speakers by recognizing the hot summer weather for the grand opening.
“You don’t always have sun and what a great day to kick off a solar project in northeast Indiana,” Zay said.
State Rep. Dave Abbott, R-Rome City, also noted the nice sun after several rainy weeks in northeast Indiana before pivoting to recognize the project as one example of how local utilities are leading into the future of renewable energy.
Indiana is a state that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels to generate power, but wind projects across the state and a rising solar industry and helping the state take steps into new ground.
“We need to be at the forefront of implementing this,” Abbott said. “Wabash Valley and Noble REMC are leading the charge in this effort.”
Noble REMC CEO Ron Raypole touched on some of the specifics of the solar field. The 1-megawatt array is comprised of 3,648 individual power-generating panels set on 6 acres of land. The field can generate enough energy on its own to power approximately 125 homes.
Noble REMC owns and will maintain the array, but the power isn’t restricted to only Noble REMC customers. Through Wabash Valley’s extensive connections, the solar power can be shared with LaGrange REMC or Steuben County REMC or even be transmitted farther afield.
Compared to the current high cost of installing solar infrastructure at home, a solar co-op purchasing program allows homes to utilize green energy in a “cost-effective and efficient” way by letting the utility take care of the solar collection.
“It’s a great way to reduce our environmental impact,” Raypole said.
Jay Bartlett, CEO of Wabash Valley Power, highlighted the project as one of many moves his firm is making to diversify its energy offerings across the Midwest and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
The LaOtto field can produce 1 megawatt of power, but Wabash Valley is already in works to add another 400 megawatts of solar to its portfolio in the future. That’s on top of other energy sources including wind, nuclear, geothermal and other cleaner fuel sources.
“We’re down to about 36% reliance on coal,” Bartlett said. “We’re moving away from that. We’re moving toward new resources.”
Solar is part of what a modern-looking electric utility has to offer, as power producers continue to evolve.
“We’re looking at a very different energy future than we’ve had the last 50 years,” he said.
Last in the lineup of speakers was Jim Shaw of Solential Energy, the firm that helped design and construction the solar field. The LaOtto project was the fourth for the group, with two more solar projects currently in development.
One unique aspect of the LaOtto project is that crews planted the ground with wildflowers, which, when they bloom, will allow the solar field to also serve as a haven for pollinating insects. That’s just one more way the project can have a positive environmental impact while producing energy.
“We feel blessed to be part of it,” Shaw said and thanked all of the cooperation between utilities, builders and community members. “This one truly is a big community project.”