DECATUR — Plans for the first solar farm in Macon County took a big step forward Thursday as the county board unanimously approved a special-use permit for the project.
The measure would allow construction of a 20-acre solar farm project on a farm near Oreana at the southeast corner of North Brush College Road and East Illiniwick Road.
"I’m just excited about getting them out there," county board Chairmann Jay Dunn said. "I think it will be a good thing for us."
The permit was filed by Minneapolis-based Geronimo Energy, and is one of two currently being sought in the county. The other permit, filed last month by Atlanta-based SolAmerica Energy, is for a 10- to 15-acre solar project at the northeast intersection of Brush College and Cundiff roads.
The project approved Thursday still needs approval from the state, though Geronimo Energy’s Development Consultant Amber Miller said having the county's OK was a major step toward making the project a reality.
“Without this approval, we could not even move forward for the state portion,” she said.
The hope is to start construction by next year or in early 2020, with a total construction time of three to six months.
The solar farm will be the size of roughly 15 football fields, and will generate enough energy to power 430 homes annually, according to Geronimo’s original application to the county’s Planning and Zoning Department. The power generated would be connected to Ameren Illinois’ existing distribution system.
Solar energy is expanding rapidly in Illinois, fueled in part by a 2016 state law that created incentives for renewable energy. The Future Energy Jobs Act, notable for preventing closure of Exelon’s nuclear power plant in Clinton, calls for a quarter of the state’s power production to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind energy by 2025.
In other business, the county board unanimously approved a one-year agreement between the Macon County Sheriff’s Office and Crossing Healthcare for medical services at the Macon County Jail.
Under the terms of the deal, Crossing will provide medical services at a cost of $635,564, retroactive to May 1. The deal includes a mutual option to extend the agreement an additional year.
Lt. Kristopher Thompson, the jail superintendent, said after Thursday’s meeting that Crossing has already started at the jail and that he was thrilled to move forward with the new partnership.
The change ends a multiyear partnership between the Macon County Sheriff’s Office and Decatur Memorial Hospital, which was not one of the two bidders for the medical contract. A spokeswoman told the Herald & Review last month the business wanted to focus more on its hospital operations.
It also comes several months after consultants hired by Sheriff Howard Buffett completed studies that showed the jail’s medical services were inadequate in a number of areas and that technology upgrades were needed.
Thompson has previously said a new agreement for the jail’s medical provider was already coming up this spring and had nothing to do with the analysts report. He added the reports did play a major role in what services the sheriff’s office was looking for in their new contract.
Among the major changes in the agreement with Crossing is to offer at least 12 hours per week of onsite medical care provided by a physician or qualified medical practitioner under the supervision of a physician, 160 hours of onsite nursing per week and 3 hours of psychiatric services provided by a psychiatrist or qualified medical practitioner working under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
Crossing Healthcare was one of two agencies to submit bids to provide medical services, with the other submitted by Peoria-based Advanced Correctional Healthcare.
The cost for medicals under the new agreement will go up annually by $331,956. Though steep, Dunn said the extra investment should greatly improve the services offered at the jail.
“We’re taking the recommendation to take it up to be one of the best-run medical jails in the state,” he said.