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Bellflower project delivers solar power-and sheep and honey-in Indiana

Lightsource bp's 173 MW Bellflower solar project in Indiana will contribute to the state's renewable energy in a big way, but it also has agricultural benefits, with the site being used for honey production and sheep grazing.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Solar developer Lightsource bp is in massive expansion mode. Reflecting that, in 2021, it placed a multi-year order for up to 5.4 gigawatts (GW) of advanced, ultra-low carbon thin film PV solar modules from solar panel manufacturer First Solar Inc.

Since then, Lightsource bp has signed a second order, for another 4.3 GW of solar modules from Arizona-based First Solar.

As the company significantly expands its solar power portfolio, an ownership change is also on the horizon. By the middle of 2024, Lightsource bp, the largest solar developer in Europe and one of the top three in the world outside of China, will be wholly-owned by bp.

The company has a number of solar projects under development in North America, and it has set a high environmental standard for those projects. It wants to achieve net gain in site biodiversity within five years of construction not only on these projects, but on all of its utility-scale projects around the world through such activities as planting pollinator gardens, honey production and sheep grazing.

A good example of that is its recently commissioned Bellflower solar project in Indiana—one of several projects the company has in the pipeline in this Midwestern state.

The $159 million, 173 megawatt (MW) Bellflower solar farm, located 40 miles east of Indianapolis and situated on 325 hectares, spans parts of both Henry and Rush Counties. It came on line in May 2023. The site has been converted agriculturally from row cropping to honey production and sheep grazing, while producing solar power for 26,800 homes and offsetting 202,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.

With each new utility-scale solar farm developed in Indiana, the company is consciously fine tuning its designs to be more “pollinator and sheep friendly,” according to Darrin Jacobs, Senior Manager for Development at Lightsource bp.

Inclusion of agrivoltaics, which is the simultaneous use of land for both solar panels and agriculture, is becoming more and more common. Developers are venturing into a variety of multiple uses in an effort to maintain some agricultural production on leased land housing solar arrays.

 
Lightsource bp is taking what it is learning from its Bellflower solar project—in terms of optimum pollinator seeding mixes that yield plants attractive to both sheep and bees, as well as its rotational grazing experience—and designing specific attributes into another Indiana solar project, to better accommodate both. 
  

Part of the reason why developers are seriously interested in multi-use sites involving some sort of vegetative cover is that there is strong evidence that vegetation on the ground keeps solar panels cooler and improves efficiency. The question then becomes, why not make it a pollinator crop to support honey production and a pasture to raise sheep, to also address concerns about solar’s footprint on the landscape? Furthermore, grazing sheep works well for vegetation control. Lightsource bp has embraced that philosophy.

On Bellflower, the company is also participating in an academic study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy called the Pollinator Habitat Aligned with Solar Energy (PHASE) study. This four-year project, involving six utility-scale solar farms and bringing together leading researchers and large-scale solar developers, is investigating the ecological and economic benefits, as well as performance impacts, of co-located pollinator plantings at large, utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) facilities.

Local beekeeper Joe Bastin has a three-year contract to produce honey within the fences of the Bellflower installation and says that Lightsource bp has done a lot of things right in terms of creating a proper environment for good quality honey production, something that other developers should consider.

“Solar farms could be great locations for honey production, however, most are not due to the way they have been planted,” he says. “Most solar farms are manicured grass with no pollinator forage. Lightsource has done a great job of making Bellflower and some other sites bee-friendly and good honey production areas. Their type of forward thinking could go a long way towards a more positive view of solar farms by the general public.”

 
 The $159 million, 173 megawatt (MW) Bellflower solar farm, located 40 miles east of Indianapolis and situated on 325 hectares, spans parts of both Henry and Rush Counties, and came online in May 2023.
  

The entire Bellflower site has been planted with vegetation that includes native species beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife, as well as an additional four hectares that have been dedicated to lush pollinator gardens with more than 60 different types of flowering plants.

Last season was short from a honey production standpoint at Bellflower because of construction winding down, but Bastin was still “very happy” with the amount harvested.

“We are really looking forward to seeing how much improvement there will be this year,” he says.

Now fully commissioned and producing power, Lightsource bp is taking what it is learning from Bellflower in terms of optimum pollinator seeding mixes that yield plants attractive to both sheep and bees, as well as its rotational grazing experience, and designing specific attributes into their Honeysuckle solar farm located in northern Indiana in the South Bend area to better accommodate both. For example, based on their design experience at Bellflower, the 188 MW Honeysuckle site, slated to come on line this year, will include a gate system so that shepherds can more easily confine and more quickly move sheep from one grazing location to another.

 
 The Bellflower site has been converted agriculturally from row cropping to honey production and sheep grazing, while producing solar power for 26,800 homes and offsetting 202,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually.
  

“How the grazer will move the flock around the site is something that we will continue to improve upon and think about as we build our projects,” says Jacobs.

Solar development has also brought economic prosperity to both Henry and Rush Counties. The Bellflower project is expected to generate about $30 million in tax revenue over its lifetime as well as annual lease payments to landholders. More than 350 people worked on the Bellflower site during peak construction.

“The Bellflower project has been very helpful on many fronts for us,” says Jacobs, “just working in the region and understanding how the state and local permitting works, what to expect weather-wise, and availability of workers and employment. What we have learned at Bellflower we have been able to translate into other communities.”

It has also been a good resource for tours to a wide variety of groups from landowners to the general public wanting to know more about solar power. And it features a walking and biking trail past the project.

“I have jars of honey that came off of the Bellflower site from last year and I hand them out to people as we are having conversations,” says Jacobs. “That really helps people see that there is more to this than just power generation. Agrivoltaics will work—we can still have a site that was used for agriculture and can still contribute to agriculture through sheep grazing or increasing the pollinator population while also hopefully increasing the value of the soil.”

Planning for the Bellflower solar farm began in 2019 on this contiguous row cropping site. It was ideal because it was relatively flat with no environmental concerns, easily accessible, and with a relatively small group of willing local landowners who were active in the community. Local power company AEP also had a power transmission line with excess capacity available running right through the property. Actual construction began in 2021. Including pollinator habitat and agrivoltaics on the site was part of the plan from the start.

 
The Bellflower solar project is expected to generate about $30 million in tax revenue over its lifetime as well as annual lease payments to landholders. 
  

The power produced at Bellflower is dedicated to Verizon Communications, as Lightsource bp has signed a virtual power purchase agreement (PPA) with the telecommunications company for the purchase of the power. Verizon’s goal is to become carbon neutral in its operations by 2035.

SOLV Energy was contracted as the EPC on the Bellflower project. The companies have recent experience working together as SOLV also delivered the Impact Solar project for Lightsource bp in Deport, Texas. The company supports and is well-versed in working right from the design phase to include multi-uses such as agrivoltaics on utility scale solar sites.

“At Impact Solar and nearly a dozen utility solar facilities across the country, our clients and project stakeholders are witnessing the value that grazing, pollinator-friendly species and other agrivoltaic practices are bringing to their bottom line,” the company says. “Agrivoltaics are a win-win—for clients, for solar workers, and for our environment.”

In terms of solar modules, the Bellflower solar farm consists of over 377,000 ultra-low carbon solar panels supplied by First Solar.

Bellflower uses a tracking array supplied by New Mexico-based Array Technologies. It is equipped with the company’s SmarTrak technology, which is an advanced tracking system that aims to enhance energy production and manage weather risk. Arizona-based, Power Electronics, provided the inverters.

Jacobs says that purchasing components from domestic suppliers did pay dividends in terms of managing the supply chain of components. Although there were supply chain delays for the Bellflower site because of construction in the age of COVID, he says it would have been a lot worse if they had worked with offshore suppliers where in many cases delivery of components was severely delayed or sitting in a port waiting for delivery to worksites. Overall, the actual completion of the Bellflower project was only slightly delayed, due primarily to waiting for components.

One of the biggest challenges during construction was adapting the worksite to comply with COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Otherwise, he says that there were no significant challenges to building Bellflower, other than dealing with the four seasons of weather conditions common in Indiana.

Big picture, agrivoltaics looks to have a bright future in renewable energy.

“For the solar industry to grow, we have to find ways to innovate to have as little impact on the community as possible while also bringing as much value as possible,” says 
 Jacobs. “I think grazing and honey production is fantastic because it’s still agricultural land. It was row cropping and now it is pasture. It is still in food production.”

Providing pasture has also diversified local agriculture production more where row cropping is dominant and the lease payments paid to the landowners have been applied directly toward their farming operations.