Solar farms set to sprout across Illinois
A new crop is ready to sprout on Illinois farms, with gleaming solar panels supplanting rows of corn and soybeans.
Drawn by new state requirements and incentives, renewable energy developers are staking out turf on the rural fringes of the Chicago area and beyond, looking to build dozens of solar farms to feed the electric grids of Commonwealth Edison and other utilities.
It’s a potential sea change in the Illinois energy landscape that proponents say is long overdue and will provide customers with a green power alternative. But the rise of solar power also has generated opposition from some residents over everything from changing landscapes to toxicity concerns.
The fledgling solar energy boom is driven by the Future Energy Jobs Act, which took effect last year and requires Illinois utilities to get 25 percent of their retail power from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025.
Solar power, which has been growing in other parts of the U.S., has yet to make much of a dent in Illinois. The state is looking to change that with a call to add 2,800 megawatts of new solar energy over the next few years – enough to power about 450,000 homes, experts say.
Earlier this month, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved an update to the state’s plan for utilities to buy renewable energy credits. The plan includes a blueprint that specifies production by new large-scale solar farms, community solar gardens and rooftop solar installations to meet the state’s renewable energy goals.
“This is an inflection point for Illinois where we’re going to start seeing rapid renewable energy growth,” said Brad Klein, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “It’s a huge ramp-up of the amount of solar in the state. It really put Illinois on the map as a leader.”
Just outside the Chicago metro area, Kankakee County is becoming a hotbed of solar development thanks to its relatively inexpensive farmland and ready access to the ComEd grid. There are 25 proposed solar farms in the pipeline, said Delbert Skimerhorn, the county’s planning department manager.
“It seems like we’re going to become the renewable energy capital of Illinois,” Skimerhorn said.
Cypress Creek Renewables, a solar energy company with offices in North Carolina and California, has developed 249 projects in more than a dozen states, including neighboring Indiana.
In Illinois, it has nearly 20 projects in development. Half of those proposed projects are in Kankakee County. Cypress Creek recently gave $10,000 to fund scholarships at Kankakee Community College for students enrolled in solar-job training classes.
“Kankakee County happens to be very forward-thinking in terms of where they want to fit in to the renewable program in Illinois,” said Scott Novack, senior developer for Cypress Creek in Illinois. “They were one of the first counties to have an ordinance that dictated the rules and regulations for developers to operate in the county, specifically for solar.”
Community Power Group, a Maryland-based renewable energy developer, has 30 projects in development across Illinois, including three in Kankakee County. One of those has met with vocal opposition from some neighbors: a proposed 13-acre community solar garden on a 171-acre farm on Heiland Road in St. Anne, a tiny village about 70 miles south of Chicago.
Under the community garden model, consumers pay for a subscription to the solar service and receive a credit for their share of the output on their monthly electric bill. Any ComEd customer can subscribe to any solar garden within the utility’s service territory, but developers say they will seek subscribers who live near the projects first.
Wendy Menigoz, 51, a naprapathic medicine practitioner who lives in her childhood home about a block from the proposed Heiland Road solar garden, said shifting from soybeans to solar panels would change the views from her home and diminish her property value.
“We bought our houses and we moved out there for the view, for the neighborhood, for the deer that run across the field,” she said. “This is going to block that.”
Kankakee County resident Christin Tipple, 54, likewise objects to the proposed development on aesthetic grounds, but she also raised concerns over reports that some solar modules contain toxic materials.
Michael Borkowski, founder of Community Power, said “for all the squawkers, there’s just as much support” for the Heiland Road garden, which will be surrounded by a fence, with added landscaping to accommodate concerns about the view. He dismissed toxicity concerns as baseless.
Despite objections, Borkowski believes the project not only will be approved by the Kankakee County Board but will be fully subscribed by local consumers.
“There will be a fight for people to sign up,” he said.
Borkowski leased 20 acres but plans to use only 13 acres for the 2 megawatt garden, which will consist of 7,700 solar panels and produce enough electricity to power about 400 homes.
Larry Burke, 73, a Chicago-area residential builder who owns the Heiland Road farm, struck a 20-year deal to lease out the parcel to Community Power for $800 an acre per year. The rest of the property is leased out to farmers who pay about $250 an acre to grow corn and soybeans.
“There’s quite a bit of land there,” Burke said. “I’m keeping plenty for farming too.”
Burke said he has been approached by several solar developers and is in negotiations to lease out other Chicago-area farms he owns for similar projects.
“I think it’s the future,” Burke said. “It’s needed in Illinois, and it finally came here.”
The Future Energy Jobs Act created a budget of more than $200 million annually for utilities to purchase renewable energy credits while also establishing programs and incentives to spur the development of solar installations.
In addition to helping fund community gardens like the one in St. Anne, the law calls for utility-scale projects – anything larger than 2 megawatts – that will bid competitively to sell their energy to ComEd and other utilities. Those projects are targeted to account for 40 percent of renewable energy credits, while community solar gardens are expected to account for 25 percent.
There also are incentives for rooftop solar installations, opening the door for Sunrun, a leading California-based residential solar company, to enter the Illinois market this month. Sunrun is hiring 80 employees and gearing up to pitch homegrown energy systems that the company says will be much less expensive upfront due to the new law.
Funding for all types of renewable energy projects is provided by customers of ComEd and other utilities through a line item on their monthly bills. Previously embedded in the supply charge, a charge for the renewable portfolio standard is now listed separately.
Officials hope the investment will help push boost Illinois’ status as a solar energy producer.
In 2017, 30 percent of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. came from solar installations, second only to natural gas, according to a report by Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association. California led the way in new solar installations last year, while Illinois ranked 40th among the states.
With hundreds of solar projects likely to pop up over the next few years, growing pains are inevitable, said Klein, of the Enviromental Law and Policy Center. Mending neighborhood disputes like the one in St. Anne will require a lot of education and patience, he said.
As costs come down and technology improves, the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy will require fewer and fewer mandates to get the utilities on board, Klein said.
ComEd announced a proposed rebate program earlier this month for business customers to develop solar projects. ComEd spokeswoman Annette Martinez said growing solar in Illinois was a “worthy and necessary goal.”
At the same time, Martinez said, the utility is concerned that its customers are funding the renewable energy program, but the incentives also extend to municipalities that produce their own power.
“We believe the funding for the program should be equitable and its benefits should go to those who pay into the program,” Martinez said.
One such case is west suburban St. Charles, a member of the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, which provides its own power to residents and businesses. In September, St. Charles flipped the switch on a new 3-acre solar plant to feed into its municipal grid with enough electricity to power 70 residential customers.
The new plant was conceived before the Future Energy Jobs Act, but may be a beneficiary of the program – despite the fact that St. Charles electric customers do not pay into the ComEd renewable energy fund.
The 4,300-panel solar plant is a pilot program and part of the city’s own green initiative, said Tom Bruhl, St. Charles electric services manager.
“We’re trying to understand how this plant impacts the grid as a whole,” Bruhl said. “This shows our residents and businesses that we’re in … and it’s a viable technology.”
Bruhl said the solar plant has been seamless, quietly generating reliable power with costs in line with other power sources.
“It just runs,” Bruhl said. “If the sun is out, it’s producing.”