Karen Smith-Cox and her husband, Max, were looking to diversify the portfolio of their 360-acre Moultrie County farm — in his family since 1938 — in hopes of ensuring that her three stepdaughters would one day inherit it from their father and be able to keep it.
An opportunity presented itself with a knock on the door from a RWE Renewables representative. The company, which already owns and operates three wind farms in Central Illinois, was interested in placing wind turbines on their property.
Interest in new renewable projects in Illinois has been palpable since the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in September 2021. The law aims to get the state to 100% carbon-free energy generation by 2050 by, among other things, upping annual state subsidies for wind and solar projects by $350 million.
“I know there’s a lot of controversy over turbines right now,” Cox told Lee Enterprises. “But a lot of people don’t understand that this is our business and this is our livelihood. And that it’s gonna happen. The turbines are coming to Illinois because of (CEJA).”
Knowing this, Cox did her research, learning as much as she could about the technology. Attracted by annual land-lease payments for themselves and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that a project could potentially generate for local schools, the couple signed up with RWE.
But, before the project could get off the ground, they faced headwinds that ultimately culminated with the Moultrie County Board voting in May 2022 to ban the development of wind turbines outright.
The measure, at least for now, killed the project on Smith-Cox’s farm and at least one other project. It also prevented new projects from even being considered.
“It was hard to deal with because they were telling the landowners what they could or couldn’t do with their land,” Smith-Cox said.
What happened in Moultrie County is not unique — at least 15 counties, mostly scattered across Central Illinois, have enacted ordinances that have either effectively banned or significantly hindered the development of wind and solar projects.
This local resistance has had statewide impact, as advocates say it slowed the buildout of wind and solar generating capacity in wind-heavy areas.
So, last month, state lawmakers took action, passing House Bill 4412, which establishes statewide zoning standards for utility-scale wind and solar projects. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the legislation late last month.
Counties with ordinances not in compliance now have until the end of May to update their rules.
This has led to cheers from environmental advocates hoping to keep Illinois on track to meet its lofty climate goals as well as landowners looking to supplement their incomes with wind or solar installations.
But it also sparked significant pushback from county officials, who lament the loss of local control on an issue that is literally in their backyards.
“I’m tired of the state and federal level telling us what we can and can’t do,” said Moultrie County Board chairman Billy Voyles. “So if they want to police it, we’ll close our courthouse and we’ll let them come down and police it. What’s the point of us being there?”
What the legislation does
The law creates a statewide setback requirement dictating how far turbines must be located from property lines. The standards are: 1.1 times the maximum blade tip height of the wind turbine to the nearest point on the property line of a non-participating property, or 2.1 times for a non-participating residence. This would equate to about one or two city blocks, respectively.
Residents in surrounding areas are not to experience more than 30 hours a year of what’s known as “shadow flicker,” the effect of the sun shining through the rotating blades of a wind turbine, which casts a moving shadow.
For solar panels, the setback is 50 feet from the nearest point on the property line of a non-participating property or 150 feet from the outside wall of the structure to the buildings on non-participating properties.
Solar facilities must also be surrounded by fencing of at least 6 feet but no more than 25 feet. No solar panel can be more than 20 feet above ground when arrays are at full-tilt.
Companies seeking to build wind and solar projects would still have to get siting approval from the county’s zoning board of appeals and, eventually, the full county board. They would also need to receive building permits from the county and enter into a road use agreement with impacted governing bodies.
However, the law also explicitly states that counties cannot adopt zoning regulations that ban wind or solar projects from being developed on any land that is zoned for agricultural or industrial use. It also bars permit fees that are “unreasonable.”
Counties have until May 27 — 120 days from the time Pritzker signed the law — to amend their zoning ordinances to be in compliance. After that date, a county will not be able to place restrictions on the installation or use of a wind or solar facility “unless it adopts an ordinance that complies with” the law.
“It does allow the counties to have their own say-so in terms of zoning and some issues like that,” said state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, one of the law’s sponsors. “But what prevents is counties from trying to pass their own special rules which basically make it impossible for anybody to be considered for a project.”
Why advocates say standards needed
Indeed, the law’s advocates say “guardrails” became necessary because it was apparent that several counties across the state were enacting such restrictive zoning that it was stunting the growth of the renewable energy industry in the state.
“It’s because 15 counties that are in really good wind areas just said they were going to ban wind without any respect to the projects or what people wanted on their own property,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “That is entirely the reason. We’re going to need access to all of the good wind areas to build the amount of wind energy we’re going to need to build to meet CEJA.”
The counties identified by environmental groups as hostile to wind and solar are Boone, Champaign, Christian, DeKalb, DeWitt, Edgar, Ford, Grundy, Iroquois, Kankakee, Livingston, Mason, Menard, Moultrie and Sangamon.
The 2021 landmark climate law aims to wean Illinois off dirty power sources like coal and natural gas by 2045 and towards 100% renewable electric generation by 2050.
It mandates the closure of privately-owned coal-fired power plants by 2030 and natural gas plants by 2045 while providing ratepayer subsidies for the state’s nuclear fleet and additional resources for the buildout of renewables such as wind and solar.
With most of the state’s nuclear plants in the Commonwealth Edison service area that covers northern Illinois, downstate — in Ameren territory — has less of a built-in buffer in the transition to a carbon-free electric sector.
Coal plants that long provided reliable baseload energy and jobs for downstate communities have been shuttering for economic reasons even before their closures became state-mandated.
Long a net-importer of energy from other states that share the same power grid, Central and Southern Illinois are expected to face significant energy reliability and affordability issues the next few decades as more baseload energy sources go offline.
Part of the solution, some say, is the buildout of wind and solar. But this can only be done if projects can get approved.
In some places, the legislation has worked as intended to incentivize renewable energy growth. For instance, LeRoy resident Kelly Lay faced a loss of income related to a medical emergency in her family — and became eligible for CEJA benefits that would allow 85 solar panels to be installed on her roof.
Lay, also an alderwoman in the McLean County city, said the community has seen a “huge increase” in solar panel installations. ”(LeRoy) went from a little town that really didn’t have the ordinances or anything to do with solar to suddenly being really competent about how the solar process goes,” she said.
But there’s a long way to go to meet the state goals. Though Illinois ranks fifth in the nation in wind generation, it will need to generate four times as much by 2050 to meet its goals. Solar capacity will need to increase nearly 100-fold, according to analysis from the Illinois Environmental Council.
“So we are missing out on these opportunities to get more energy into the MISO (downstate) grid, which will lower the bills of customers,” said state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago. “And we’re also missing the opportunity to align policy with the goals of CEJA, which is to bring more renewable energy onto the system. This will do that.”
Local officials respond
But the state’s preemption of local ordinances that, until now, had largely been the purview of local elected officials has been met with pushback.
“Every single day, since House Bill 4412 was passed, I have gotten a phone call, email or text in some fashion (from) somebody in this county, saying ‘I sure hope you can get this stopped,’” said Voyles, the Moultrie County Board chairman.
Voyles said that the action of the board to ban wind and solar was based on the will of constituents, who spoke out overwhelmingly against such proposals last year. He would not commit to enacting the new zoning standards that would comply with the state’s by the May deadline.
There has been talk of some counties pursuing legal action against the state over the law. But no lawsuits have been filed at this point.
In Livingston County, officials must now return to the drawing board after passing their own solar energy ordinance and moratorium on new projects.
Jason Bunting, who previously served as chairman of the county’s agriculture and zoning committee before being appointed to the Illinois House of Representatives last week, said when solar energy credits were offered in 2018 to entice land owners to become solar proponents, eight or nine community solar projects came before the county board.
”Some board members showed concerns as the number (of applications) increased and we started talking about acres being taken out of production for agriculture,” Bunting said.
With the advancement of so many community solar projects and the filing of a permit for a 2,000-acre solar farm, the county board passed a moratorium late last year on solar projects until March 2023. In January, the county board voted to extend the moratorium to June 15.
Bunting said the agriculture and zoning committee also discussed changing the language to the county’s solar energy ordinance. On Jan. 12, Bunting said the county board passed an amended solar ordinance that more closely aligned with the wishes of participating and non-participating landowners.
However, some of the language from the ordinance does not align with the new state law.
The Livingston County ordinance requires that all equipment from solar farms be 660 feet from residentially zoned parcels. Equipment must also be a minimum of 100 feet from a front parcel line of any non-residential parcel and a minimum of 50 feet from all other parcel lines of a nonresidential parcel.
However, the state law establishes that commercial solar energy facilities be 150 feet from occupied community buildings and dwellings on non-participating properties and 50 feet to the nearest point on the property line of a non-participating property.
Jesse King, assistant director of regional zoning and planning for Livingston County, said the county is working with an attorney to determine what specific changes need to be made to the local ordinance to maintain compliance with the state.
Other portions of the law have drawn concern.
The Illinois Farm Bureau opposed the legislation because it “does not adequately protect our members’ farmland and does not create acceptable statewide standards for the development of wind and solar facilities,” according to Kevin Semlow, the bureau’s director of state legislation.
The group, which supports statewide zoning standards in concept, believes that some of the setbacks need to be adjusted.
However, their main issues were the lack of a requirement that a plan be in place to address drainage issues that can arise with renewable projects, the lack of an enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with existing Agricultural Impact Mitigation Agreements (AIMA) and the allowing of wind and solar developers to cross drainage systems without the permission of local drainage districts.
House Majority Leader Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, said during debate over the legislation last month that she has met with the farm bureau over the drainage and AIMA issues and indicated that some of those issues may be addressed in follow-up legislation this spring.
Another concern raised has been language surrounding road use agreements. Under the law, wind and solar facility developers are responsible for the cost of repairing and restoring roads that may be damaged during construction of facilities. But they are not responsible thereafter, even as they will presumably be used by the companies for maintenance and decommissioning.
In Central Illinois, there is a divide on renewable projects. Some landowners seek to reap the benefits of such projects — such as a steady annual income.
Others, though not begrudging their neighbors for taking advantage of such opportunities, say that there has to be an acknowledgement that these projects impact those around them.
“These renewable projects can affect a significant area outside of the footprint of just that project,” said Robert Klemm, who owns and operates a centennial farm in DeWitt County with his son. ”And so there needs to be a drainage plan in place to deal with the potential negative impacts of these projects.”
Klemm said they are “in the dead heat of the involvement of it, so to speak.”
From his front door, all he can see are wind turbines built last year by Italy-based Enel Green Power. Once operational, the Alta Farms Wind Project is expected to have capacity to produce 200 megawatts of energy, enough to power 57,000 homes.
The company said it expects the project to generate more than $44 million in property taxes and $50 million in land-lease payments over the next 25 years.
In Moultrie County, the proposed wind farm that would have included Smith-Cox’s property would generate about $600,000 annually for the local school district in Sullivan, which would be “life-changing for a small school district,” she said.
Smith-Cox said she understands the concerns of local elected officials and neighbors about wind and solar projects.
“But landowners also have the right to diversify their land to be able to keep it in the family …” Smith-Cox said. “And our farm has been operational since 1938. And we want to give the next generation a chance to keep it in the family.”
She called the new state law “a game changer” in that regard.
“We really had to do some soul-searching and we had to make a business decision,” she said. “That’s the main thing about all of this: It’s not about if we were pro- or con- on (wind) energy, it was about our business.”
Drew Zimmerman contributed to this report.
Contact Brenden Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13
“I’m tired of the state and federal level telling us what we can and can’t do. So if they want to police it, we’ll close our courthouse and we’ll let them come down and police it. What’s the point of us being there?”
— Moultrie County Board chairman Billy Voyles
“It’s (necessary) because 15 counties that are in really good wind areas just said they were going to ban wind without any respect to the projects or what people wanted on their own property.”
— Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council
“Our farm has been operational since 1938. And we want to give the next generation a chance to keep it in the family.”
— Karen Smith-Cox, Moultrie County landowner
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Region: Decatur,City: Decatur,Politics,Region: Central
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February 11, 2023 at 10:40AM