10/27/19 Solar Panels

Duke Energy has a solar field on land that it rents from the Purdue Research Foundation. The plot is just west of U.S. Highway 52/231 and south of the Purdue Technology Center Aerospace building.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comments from the Area Plan Commission.

Recent climate strikes in West Lafayette and Lafayette signal a growing need to address climate change in Tippecanoe County.

Renewable energy suffered a major blow in May when county commissioners approved Unified Zoning Ordinance #96, banning wind turbines taller than 140 feet.

The decision was reached with the overwhelming support of concerned citizens, according to the UZO #96 report.

“This decision is not a reflection of the county’s attitude towards renewable energy sources, but rather it is a matter of location, the rights of neighboring property owners and an undesirable land use,” the report states.

In the wake of the wind farm ban, local sustainability advocates worry that solar panels could be next.

“We’ve been trying to, as a Go Greener Commission, stay attached to the (Area Plan Commission) ordinance committee and figure out what’s going on because there had been some rumors that solar was going to be the next on the chopping block,” said Lindsey Payne, chair of the Go Greener Commission, an initiative to boost green efforts in West Lafayette.

Sallie Fahey, the executive director of the APC, said she denies any notion of a solar energy ban.

APC, the policy-making and zoning organization in Tippecanoe County, will soon begin discussions about solar energy. It will be hosting a solar energy planning exercise Tuesday in Lafayette which will invite community members to participate in discussing solar development as a land-use issue.

The exercise the APC will be using was developed by the American Planning Association and the U.S. Department of Energy, and features a board game called “Solar Powering Sunnyside.”

To Payne, the exercise resembles the preliminary steps to solar energy regulations, which could result in a county ban on solar farms.

“What I don’t want to have happen and I think is what happened with the wind ban is the group that was against (wind farm) mobilized their constituency very quickly and very well and so those were the voices that were heard by the commissioners,” Payne said.

Fahey said Tuesday's exercise is about understanding the tradeoffs, while also educating everyone on the proper terminology to use when referencing solar energy.

"You know, we might want 50% of our energy derived from solar sources," Fahey said. "But what does that mean from a land-use perspective? Does it mean that you tear down a bunch of trees to build a solar farm and then you take away the benefit from having a forrested community? ... These are the questions that this exercise helps people think about."

Payne said she is hoping to have better representation from pro-renewable energy community members at the Solar Energy Planning Exercise and at any future feedback sessions hosted by the APC.

The ban on wind turbines was placed in order to preserve land for future economic development and to protect residents from turbines being too close to their rural homes, Payne said. Solar farms can be incorporated onto the roofs of buildings and only cause minor disruption to nearby homes. Therefore, the same reasons the wind ban passed would not be as convincing when it came to solar panels, Payne said.

If the APC were to ban solar in the county, the West Lafayette City Council would likely vote to opt out of the ban as it did in June for the wind turbine ban, city council member Peter Bunder said.

“We just did it to say we think this is a bad idea, and particularly because there’s climate change, so we should be looking for renewable energy,” Bunder said.

Opting out of the ban by the council was largely symbolic, Bunder said, as the city of West Lafayette has very little land viable for wind turbines and is in close proximity to the Purdue Airport.

Keeping wind and solar energy on the table in West Lafayette will be integral in reaching the goals laid out in the Climate Resolution passed earlier this month by the city council. The resolution aims to reduce the city’s emissions by 20% every four years.

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