Israeli company building largest U.S. solar project on Indiana farmland

Firm has leased 13,000 acres of farmland in two northern Indiana counties.

A company based in Israel has leased 13,000 acres of farmland in two northern Indiana counties with plans to build the largest solar farm in the United States.

The project, called Mammoth Solar, will be built in three phases, with all solar panels expected to be up and collecting the sun’s rays by 2024, according to the company, Doral Renewable Energy Group.

At the ceremonial groundbreaking in the small town of Knox, Indiana, in mid-October, the Israeli ambassador to the United States referred to the project as “a milestone in the Israel-U.S. relationship.”

Doral Renewables is the U.S. subsidiary of Doral Renewable Energy Resources Group, an Israeli energy company that in 2008 connected a solar system to Israel’s electricity grid for the first time.

Gov. Eric Holcomb attended the groundbreaking, held under a tent on the site of a drive-in theater, near where vast stretches of farmland expected to be covered with large solar panels in just a little more than two years.

Holcomb was joined at the ceremony by the two founders of the company – Nick Cohen and Dori Davidovitz – and by the Israeli ambassador, Gilad Erdan.

The largest piece of the project is in Pulaski County, where the company has signed long-term agreements with farmers and other landowners for about 9,000 acres of flat land.

“The ground is leased just as if you were a farmer and leased land off me and had corn in the ground,” says the county’s building inspector, Karla Redweik.

Most leases, she says, are for 20-25 years. There are no solar panels set up on the land yet, however, and there won’t be until two court cases are resolved that are challenging the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals’ decisions to grant special exceptions that will allow the land to be used as solar fields.

In the one case, a group of 10 petitioners asked the court to reverse the BZA’s decision to grant the special exception saying three of the five board members’ votes shouldn’t count because two have a conflict of interest and one doesn’t live in the county. They also allege the county’s solar regulations are invalid because two of the three county commissioners who voted on them own land they are leasing to Mammoth Solar – one 154 acres and the other almost 225 acres, according to the petition, which was filed in Pulaski Superior Court.

They also say the BZA “hand selected” the people they allowed to enter the room where a public hearing was being held on the project, and the solar farm is likely to have a “negative effect on neighboring property values."

The immediate beneficiaries of the project are the farmers and other landowner in the two counties. Doral reportedly offered a premium price per acre for the land, and in several news articles, farmers indicated they were happy to sign leases as they didn’t have children to take over the farm, or if they did, their children had no interest in being farmers.

It’s estimated that when completed, the project will produce 1.3 gigawatts of electricity, enough to service up to 200,000 homes.

It is also expected to employ hundreds of people to erect the solar panels and 50-100 to run the solar farm.

The land in Pulaski and Starke counties is considered ideal for a solar farm because it is so flat, but the two counties were also likely chosen, said Redweik, because of the electrical transmission lines that cut through them.

Mammoth Solar is Doral Renewables' largest project in the United States. The company recently entered into a joint venture agreement with Invenergy, the largest private company producing electricity in the United States. According to the website Israel21c, the company plans to introduce to the U.S. market advanced ways of producing and storing electricity, including smart grid solutions "to eliminate the need for external electricity suppliers."

The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by 2023.