News Local/State

Spurred By State Incentives, Solar Panel Farms Are Coming To Illinois

Solar panels at the new University of Illinois Solar Farm.

Solar panels at the University of Illinois solar farm along Windsor Avenue. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Maybe you’ve noticed wind farms --- groupings of large wind turbines --- when driving through parts of rural Illinois. In time, the state’s countryside will also be home to solar farms. These groupings of solar panels will cover dozens, even hundreds of acres.

Last week, Patrick Fitzgerald, an attorney representing BayWa r. e. (a U-S division of the German BayWa Group) which is hoping to build a solar farm in Champaign County, told a county board committee that he had some good news to report.

“And that is, the Illinois Power (Agency) awarded this development a full subscription of the Renewable Energy Credits,” said Fitzgerald at the January 10 meeting of the Environment & Land Use Committee. “What that means is, this development, if you bless it, if the county board blesses it, has a very real chance of actually happening.”

The Champaign County Board will take a final vote on whether to bless the BayWa solar farm project on January 24. But those Renewable Energy Credits are the reason that BayWa and other companies are proposing solar farms in Illinois right now. Those credits are part of Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act. The legislation was passed two years ago, primarily to provide additional revenue to two nuclear power plants in Illinois, which were threatened with closure by their owner, Exelon. But to broaden its appeal, FEJA also includes money to promote renewable energy, by ensuring that the state’s three major utilities use a certain amount of electricity generated by wind and solar.

“Every customer of ComEd, Ameren and MidAmerican has a small line item on their bill every month to collect money for renewable energy,” said Anthony Star, director of the Illinois Power Agency. “And that then creates a budget the utilities can use for supporting this program.” 

The Illinois Power Agency issues the Renewable Energy Credits that utility companies use to keep track of the renewable energy they’re obligated to buy. That guaranteed market is what’s attracting the current wave of solar farm proposals in Illinois. The BayWa proposal is one of the big ones: 150 megawatts-worth of solar panels to be mounted on nearly 1200 acres of leased farmland, east of Sidney. Sean Gallagher, Vice-President of State Affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, says the BayWa project, if built, will be part of an exponential increase in Illinois’ solar generating capacity, which is currently just under 100 megawatts.

“The Future Energy Jobs Act has a goal of 1300 megawatts of solar by 2020,” said Gallagher. “So just in the next two years, you would see that 100 megawatts jump up to over 1400 megawatts. That’s a big increase.”

Of the half-dozen or so solar farm proposals in Champaign County, only the BayWa proposal near Sidney is utility-scale. The others are much smaller, community-scale projects, covering dozens of acres each, instead of hundreds, with generating capacities of just two megawatts or less. Their power output would be available for direct purchase by individual electric customers. Gallagher says those customers may be seeking an alternative to installing their own rooftop solar panels.

”Maybe they’re renters, maybe they have too much shade, maybe their house faces the wrong direction,” said Gallagher. “They can sign up for a community solar program and get the benefits of solar power. Small businesses that may not own the building that they operate out of, they can also go for this community solar option.”

Big or small, these solar projects have opponents. And in Champaign County, that includes officials in small towns. Most of the Champaign County solar projects seek to be built near small towns like Ludlow, Sidney and St. Joseph, where it’s easier to plug into the power grid, but where open farmland is available close to the village limits. (An exception is one proposed for the site of a covered-up landfill in Urbana). But the mayors of those towns fear the solar farms will block future expansion.

That was an argument then-Champaign County Board member James Quisenberry made in November, when he voted against a solar farm to be built north of St. Joseph, in an area where he says development is already happening.

“And so this is a direction that the village is going to grow over time,” said Quisenberry, during his final meeting before leaving office. “I can’t tell you how fast, but if you look at the picture, it’s like, no, this is being put in close to where development might occur.” 

Quisenberry provided the additional vote needed for the rejection of that particular solar farm proposal by the Champaign County Board. But other solar farm projects are winning approval, including some that Quisenberry supported at that same meeting.

Approval at the local level is no guarantee a particular solar farm will be built soon. For community grade projects, a lottery will decide which ones receive Renewable Energy Credits from the Illinois Power Agency. And only a few projects will win. (A final draft of the contract for Renewable Energy Credits is due to be released by the Illinois Power Agency on January 28, with project applications accepted January 30 through February 13).

But in the long term, solar energy’s supporters are confident that more solar farms are on the way in Illinois, with or without state assistance, as the cost of installing solar energy arrays continues to fall.

“The price of solar installations has come down about 70 percent over the course of the past several years,” said Andrew Barbeau, with the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, a group formed by backers of the Future Energy Jobs Act. Speaking at a news conference marking the 2nd anniversary of FEJA’s passage, Barbeau said “the deployment of solar and wind power in Illinois is only getting cheaper right now. Recent studies have shown that the fall in lifetime costs of these projects are now beating existing coal and gas plants that are already out there and deployed.”

Citizens Utility Board Executive Director David Kolata, speaking at the same news conference, said the combination of FEJA incentives and falling solar installation prices are a strong attraction for those who believe in the potential of solar energy.

“They’re hungry to get involved in FEJA opportunities, not only because they believe it’s good for the planet, but also because it’s good for their pocketbook,” said Kolata.