BLOOMINGTON — Flat land and open fields in Central Illinois allow for consistent winds, helping the state become a leader in the nation’s “wind belt” region amid the fight against climate change.
Producing zero carbon emissions, McLean County’s wind farms have churned out enough energy to power more than 250,000 homes per year while raking in millions of dollars in property taxes to the county. About 65% of those taxes — $38.3 million — have funded some local school districts since 2007.
In the 21st century, Illinois’ wind energy production has grown from 0 megawatt hours produced per year to about 17,000 megawatt hours in 2020, climbing its way to fifth in the country in wind capacity.
McLean County has the top wind farm energy capacity in the state, according to a December 2020 report by professor of economics at Illinois State University in Normal and co-founder of the Center for Renewable Energy. The county currently has four wind farms: High Trail Wind Farm, which went active in 2007; Old Trail Wind Farm in 2008; White Oak Wind Farm in 2011; and Bright Stalk Wind Farm in 2019.
Not everyone is excited about the growth. Approval of the wind farms has come despite objections from some neighbors and rural residents, who point to concerns about the turbines’ noise and interference with weather radar, among other factors.
But greater wind energy capacity is on the horizon. Developers hope to build more in McLean County, and pending legislation in the General Assembly could even lead to more growth in the region’s wind capacity and other renewable energies.
Wind energy companies Apex Clean Energy and Enel Green Power are planning to bring wind farms No. 6 and 7 to McLean County in the near future, McLean County Farm Bureau Assistant Manager Anna Ziegler confirmed.
Virginia-based Apex’s Diamond Grove wind farm initially aimed to be in production by 2024. The company’s plan includes building 75 turbines in southern McLean County between Heyworth and LeRoy.
It would be a 300-megawatt farm capable of powering about 112,500 homes per year.
Enel Green Power, which is currently constructing DeWitt County’s first wind farm, plans to build McLean County’s seventh wind farm, called Pumpkin Vine, on the county’s west side along the Tazewell County line.
Specific information about the Pumpkin Vine wind farm is not available, but Ziegler said the company is “in the very early stages” of development.
She added that the McLean County Farm Bureau is “neutral” on wind farm projects and solely provides information to its members.
“We have members on both sides of the issue every time,” Ziegler said. “We have landowners that want to have the opportunity to have a turbine and we have landowners that don’t want them in the area.”
McLean County’s four wind farms — comprised of 397 turbines — produced about 1.61 million megawatt hours in 2019, according to the latest data available for all four farms from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The four farms have generated about $59 million in property tax revenue for McLean County since 2007, according to McLean County tax records.
Old Trail Wind Farm near Ellsworth has brought the most tax revenue to the county — about $22.7 million — since 2008. That’s about $1.75 million per year. Its 120 turbines also have generated the most power per year at 562,410 megawatt hours, totaling about 7.87 million megawatt hours in 13 1/2 years.
High Trail Wind Farm near Ellsworth — the county’s oldest — has made the county about $20.3 million since it became operable in 2007, providing about $1.45 million per year in property taxes. Its 120 turbines have generated the most power among the county’s four farms at just more than 8 million megawatt hours, or about 537,000 megawatt hours per year.
White Oak Wind Farm’s total tax revenue is about $13.4 million since it went active in 2011 near Carlock, paying about $1.34 million in property taxes per year. Its 100 turbines produced 3.78 million megawatt hours between 2011 and 2019, according to the most recent data available. That amounts to about 420,304 megawatt hours per year.
Meanwhile, Bright Stalk Wind Farm’s first property tax payment in 2020 was about $2.5 million. Its 57 turbines in Chenoa and Lexington have produced about 1.11 million megawatt hours between 2019 and 2021.
Houston-based EDP Renewables operates the Bright Stalk Wind Farm and the two-phase Twin Groves farms, also known as the Old Trail and High Trail wind farms.
Blair Matocha, a spokesperson for EDP Renewables, told The Pantagraph that the company “continues to explore development opportunities — both for wind farms and solar parks — in McLean County due to its supportive landowners and other stakeholders, vast wind and sun resource, and access to the electric transmission grid.”
Matocha also said some of Bright Stalk’s energy helps power software company Salesforce and the retail giant Walmart.
“Offtakers privately purchase energy from both phases of the Twin Groves Wind Farm,” Matocha said. “While these companies are the direct purchasers of the power from these wind farms, the actual electrons that are generated are delivered to power lines that run across the county, and travel along the path of least resistance to wherever the power is needed.”
But the boom in wind energy has not been approved harmoniously, as some residents have spoken against wind farm projects near their property for various reasons. And one wind farm project in Central Illinois has had a share of legal challenges.
A group of 69 DeWitt County residents filed a lawsuit against the DeWitt County Board and Enel Green Power in an attempt to stop the county’s first wind farm from being constructed. Another lawsuit aimed to halt construction was filed last year by the Village of Wapella and its mayor Sherry Mears. Those lawsuits were voluntarily dismissed by the constituents in March and construction continued until recently.
The DeWitt County Board voted in July to suspend issuance of any building permits for the project until Enel Green Power could show the board its permission from power companies to curtail the windmills during severe weather. The wind energy company filed a lawsuit last month against DeWitt County to demand 15 building permits be issued.
Wind farm opposition
McLean County’s wind farm projects also have faced some resistance, particularly from local landowners who question whether the proximity of turbines near where they live and work can lead to adverse health effects.
Others have raised concerns, too, over negative impacts from turbine construction, like leaving rural roads in poor condition and spreading large amounts of dust. Turbines also can create interference on nearby Doppler radar, though area meteorologists have said they know what to look for and are still able to track storms.
One of the most critical voices echoing through turbine-dotted farmland and county board rooms belongs to Carolyn Taylor, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry West, the namesake of West Township in the southeast corner of McLean County.
It’s there and in Bellflower Township where Taylor has kept wind energy companies from erecting turbines on two swaths of farmland belonging to her family.
Although she "completely believes in the value of wind energy," Taylor, a psychotherapist and sociolinguist who taught at the University of Illinois in the 1990s, also describes herself as "pro-health" and "pro-well-being."
In letters sent to the McLean County Zoning Board, Taylor primarily takes issue with existing county-level building regulations that "let wind companies put way too many wind turbines too close" to farms and homes that both opt in and opt out of permitting turbines on parcels of their land.
Both participants and non-participants, Taylor told The Pantagraph, are prone to negative physiological and mental health effects because the turbines stand too close to where they live and work.
Taylor said one of the most serious effects can be caused by turbine flicker. That phenomenon occurs when the sun is low in the sky and a turbine creates a shadow on a building. As the turbine blades pass in front of the sun, the shadow moves, appearing to flick on and off.
The movement can be especially harmful for people who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy and can trigger seizures or dizziness.
"(Wind companies and county officials) are not even thinking about the quality of living at home," Taylor said. "With the sunset or the sunrise, every time you’d be blinded by the strobe-like effect of shadow flicker."
Other effects follow from infrasound — a low-frequency noise emitted from turbines and their equipment — and audible machinery noise. When a turbine is too close to a home, Taylor said both noises can negatively affect a person’s nervous system or their sleeping patterns.
Those outcomes and other problems, self-reported by people living near wind turbines in a number of countries, including Canada, Japan and Finland, have been the impetus for a number of studies.
A 2017 survey of existing studies on infrasound concluded that "proximity of a wind turbine or wind farm has not conclusively been proven to negatively affect stress responses, quality of life, sleep quality (subjective and objective) nor other health complaints."
The reason for that outcome, the study’s authors wrote, is "that individual traits and attitudes, visual aspects as well as the process of wind farm planning and decision-making are highly likely to influence the response to sound from wind turbines."
Despite the ambiguity over negative human health effects directly linked to wind turbine operation and placement, Taylor said potential participants should at least be aware of the potential health risks associated with wind energy.
And what’s more, she said county officials should take more care to educate themselves and their constituents before approving a new wind project.
"There’s a lot here leading to no truly-informed consent," Taylor said. "People are hiding the fact that wind companies are putting turbines right in the danger area near houses."
McLean County zoning code currently mandates that a single turbine must be set back from the property line of a non-participating landowner a distance at least 1.1 times the total height of the turbine, and must be set back from an occupied residence a distance at least 3 times the total height of the turbine.
That means a 500-foot tall turbine, for instance, would need to be placed 550 feet from a nonparticipating farmer’s property line, or 1,500 feet from a home that someone lives in.
Nearly all four wind farms in McLean County have at least one turbine that falls closer to a residence or property line. In those cases, the wind company will negotiate an enhanced payment with the landowner to accommodate the exception.
Taylor said county officials should extend the minimum set-back distances from residential and agricultural property lines to at least 1.5 miles.
"Wind farms are great, but less than 1/3 of a mile from a farm or near people’s home? No," Taylor said. "They belong on hillsides, where nothing else is there — no homes, no active farms. That’s where the wind farms belong, not in the middle of where people live."
State renewable energy goals
Illinois is among a majority of states that have a renewable portfolio standard, which is a policy that requires electric utilities to procure a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources.
Illinois’ RPS, first enacted in 2007, requires that major utilities like Ameren and Commonwealth Edison obtain 25% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2025. Of that, 75% must come from wind and 6% from solar.
Funds for these renewable projects comes from charges found on customer utility bills, which are pooled to procure renewable energy credits (RECs).
Across the state’s major utilities, this has led to about $225 million annually for renewable energy projects, according to the Illinois Power Agency.
This pot of cash has been used to incentivize continued private sector investment in wind projects and to kickstart the state’s solar industry.
The RPS undoubtedly "helps spur demand for wind projects," said Matthew Tulis, a spokesman for RWE Renewables, a German energy company with three active wind farms containing more than 300 turbines in the state.
Their portfolio includes two 150-megawatt farms in Iroquois County, which opened in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and were the first two projects the company undertook in the MISO energy market. They produce enough energy to power 90,000 homes.
The company’s most recent project is Radford’s Run, a 306-megawatt farm in northwestern Macon County that went online in 2017. The 139-turbine facility generates enough energy to power about 100,000 homes.
"Illinois has a very robust wind resource along with available land for development in Central Illinois," Tulis said. "There is also available transmission to get the power from where it is generated to where there is a demand."
But even with investments from companies like RWE, Illinois is far short of meeting its renewable goals.
The state’s interim renewable energy target for 2020 was 17.5%. In reality, just over 11% of the state’s electricity came from those sources — triple the amount generated in 2010 but still far from where the state set out to be.
Though the Future Energy Jobs Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017, increased state investment in wind and solar projects, it was far short of what was necessary to make a meaningful dent in those ambitious clean energy goals.
Faced with this reality, climate activists and their allies in Springfield are making another push to move the state toward a clean energy future.
A proposal backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and groups like the Illinois Environmental Council and the Sierra Club would double the state’s investment in renewable energy — tacking on an additional few bucks a month onto residential ratepayers to help pay for it.
The proposed legislation would build on the 25% renewable energy by the 2025 goal, setting a new interim target of 40% by 2030, which would eventually set the state on a path toward 100% clean generation by 2050.
Stakeholders hoped to have a bill on Pritzker’s desk by now, but negotiations hit a snag in late May over the timeline for decarbonization, with labor unions holding out for a longer ramp than the 2035 shuttering date for most coal-fired plants and 2045 for natural gas plants.
The Illinois Senate, meeting in a special session on Tuesday, passed an energy bill that includes the increased investments for renewable energy projects and gives a hard 2045 closure date for municipally-owned coal-fired power plants like the Prairie State Generating Station in Marissa and City Water, Light and Power in Springfield.
However, Pritzker and his environmental allies are not on board, still concerned about the lack of intermittent targets for carbon reduction at coal and natural gas plants.
At stake is not only the fate of the state’s nuclear fleet — two plants will close in a matter of weeks without ratepayer-funded subsidies included in the legislation — but the state’s renewable energy market.
Lawmakers may return later this month to hammer out a deal.
Solar to rise, but wind still rules region
Though renewables currently make up a small slice of Illinois’ energy pie, more than 94% comes from wind energy.
That renewable energy portfolio will not be as slanted toward wind in the future, experts say, with solar quickly becoming more competitive on price and flexible in terms of where it can be used.
But wind is likely to remain dominant in Central Illinois as the “the wind resource is stronger” and “there’s available land” for more large-scale projects, said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter.
“The wind development to date in Central Illinois has not been limited by our need for the power or the availability of the wind resource,” Darin said. “It’s been limited by the slow and steady growth of overall renewable energy percentage of the state."
"Central Illinois is one of the places in Illinois that is going to see targeted investment because of the strength of the wind resource there," Darin said.
Contact Kade Heather at 309-820-3256. Follow him on Twitter: @kadeheather
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September 4, 2021 at 12:51PM