Thomas Jefferson freaking loved mammoths. He was obsessed with them by some accounts; writing about them, collecting their fossils, and even trying to reconstruct one on the floor of the Oval Office. He told Lewis and Clark to keep their eyes peeled for a live specimen in the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson recognized mammoths as mascots of the American experiment itself, mirroring its pioneer ideals and sparking a sense of awe and wonder.
Of course, the former President would never lay eyes on a live Mammut Americanum, as they were likely hunted into extinction by early Americans. Their bones lie scattered throughout the Great Lakes region, decaying souvenirs of magnificent beasts who couldn’t adapt fast enough to survive.
It’s not much of a leap to suggest modern Americans are staring down a similar barrel. And in a lovely twist of irony, if we don’t want to meet a similarly untimely fate, we’ll be drawing power from projects spanning their graves.
A namesake discovery
Mammoth Solar is a massive, 13,000-acre Indiana solar project that received its name from the woolly behemoth President Jefferson so adored. Well, kind of. A well-preserved fossil was discovered in Pulaski County, where the project broke ground.
“It’s really amazing,” smiles Ed Baptista, Doral Renewables director of development, agrivoltaics, and green hydrogen. “I do have a selfie with it.”
Parts of that specimen are now displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Since the Mammoth’s namesake discovery, the project has continued to grow- from an initial 300 MW interconnection request with PJM to an eventual 1.3 GW of clean energy production- making it the largest solar project in the United States. Quite literally, a mammoth one.
“The project wasn’t that large when we selected that name,” laughs Kevin Parzyck, senior vice president of special projects at Doral. “There was not a vision that this was a 1.3 GW project, but as you work with the community, you realize that that’s possible.”
The farmer’s apprentice and the utility infielder
The Mammoth Solar project started with a conversation between Doral CEO Nick Cohen and a guy who owned some property next to large transmission lines.
“I found there was capacity, especially in the PJM lines,” recalls Parzyck.
One land owner led to another, and before long the folks from Doral realized the area was ripe for all things solar, from permitting to production.
“We were basically spending time going to landowners’ kitchens, as Ed still does,” Parzyck chuckles. “Going to their barns and talking about how we were the kind of folks who could deliver a project for the community.”
“I’m a farmer’s apprentice,” offers Baptista. “I’m learning from them.”
Parzyck sees himself as the company’s utility infielder, tending a crucial position in the field. “I’ve been around the block. I know a lot of stuff. I like to learn a lot of stuff,” Parzyck explains. “I think over the years I have found that I can talk to a lot of people in the community. I can distill a lot of technology and a lot of issues in basic ways and communicate it to folks so that they understand what we’re what we’re doing.”
That outreach can be a mundane process, but Kevin learned to love it. “You keep your nose to the grindstone. You speak honestly,” he explains. “You listen to the landowners as to what their concerns are and then move forward.”
Bit by bit, Doral acquired more land and began submitting interconnection requests as the larger vision took shape. The developer currently has five interconnection positions, ultimately moving ahead with each of its initial requests.
Harvesting the land
Doral’s team says it’s close to completing phase one of the project, Mammoth North Solar, which accounts for 400 MW in Starke County. They anticipate generating sellable energy there by mid-year.
Just across the county line in Pulaski, the other two phases of the project (300 MW and 600 MW) are still in the PJM queue.
“We have favorable guidance on where it stands with regard to our approvals and we would expect to be able to start construction on those phases very soon,” Parzyck says.
“We have the building permits for everything,” Ed adds. “It’s good to know all of the phases are already permitted.”
While all three phases are under construction, the Doral team is conducting research with Purdue University and the state of Indiana to maximize the utility of those old mastodon graves. It’s a far cry from the sort of thinking that went into constructing most solar farms five or ten years ago, notes Parzyck.
“We are thinking ahead of time, finding innovative ways to have this dual use of the land and demonstrate the economics of it,” shares Baptista, who says agrivoltaics is one of Doral’s core values. The company is trying all sorts of techniques, from the proven concept of sheep grazing to some more high-tech options, like self-driven tractors that work overnight so as not to interfere with solar production. Perennial mint crops, solar potatoes, and hay production are all on the table as Doral aims to determine the most productive and cost-efficient stuff to plant and harvest.
“Vegetation will grow anyway,” admits Baptista. “If we do nothing, we still have to deal with vegetation management, which can be a lot over the lifetime of a project.”
And the early bird gets the worm, too. Kevin reaches to his right and excitedly wiggles a jar of popcorn kernels in front of the camera.
“This is one of our landowners growing popcorn on the land around our project and this is what he sells it as,” Parzyck reveals. Another landowner is an amateur brewmaster.
“I’ve sat at his bar and drank his beer. It’s pretty good,” Kevin acknowledges.
And when Mammoth Solar is finally finished and operational, perhaps the Doral team will toss a few of those back in celebration.
“When the project is finished, you will know,” laughs Ran Rabi, Doral’s operations and public relations manager.
“I am just gonna say- we will celebrate this. But we have still a lot of work ahead.”