If you live in the Illinois countryside, don't be surprised to hear that a developer wants to build a solar farm in your neighbor's field.
State incentives have prompted energy companies to search every county for possible sites, thanks to the Future Energy Jobs Act of 2016. The legislation took effect last summer, and officials recently spelled out details of the community solar program that was created as a result.
"We've fielded six phone calls from private companies looking for available property in the area where they could put a solar farm," said Chad Easton, mayor of Marissa, a village in St. Clair County. "It's a hot issue right now."
Instead of corn or soybeans, solar farms have rows of photovoltaic solar panels that convert radiant sunlight into electricity that can be added to the state's power grid. The idea is attractive to some Illinois farmers who could lease land to help make ends meet, but other residents worry about aesthetics and environmental impacts.
Marissa's zoning board is considering a request from a Denver-based energy company for a special-use permit to build a 26-acre solar farm on the east edge of town. A hearing that was postponed this week due to procedural issues will be rescheduled, Easton said.
Solar farms also are being considered in St. Clair County communities such as Belleville, Fairmont City, Smithton and Washington Park; and in Madison, Bond, Clinton and Washington counties.
"We're seeing the beginning of a solar boom in Illinois, and that's a good thing," said Jim Chilsen, director of communications for the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit organization that advocates for residential utility customers in Illinois.
But just because a developer is talking about building a solar farm doesn't mean it will happen.
It takes weeks or months for companies to conduct research, obtain permits and determine whether projects would be profitable or logistically feasible. Then they have to file applications with the Illinois Power Agency, an independent state agency that's implementing the community solar program.
This year's application timeline hasn't yet been finalized, said Director Anthony Star. Once applications are approved, developers will have 18 months to complete their projects.
Officials estimate that only 75 solar farms, each producing 2 megawatts of electricity, will be approved in the program's initial phase. One megawatt can power 750 to 1,000 homes.
If more than 75 applications are submitted, program participants will be picked through a lottery, Star said. "We suspect that there will be more applications than there is funding."
Tax dollars aren't involved, he said. Solar and other energy programs covered by the Future Energy Jobs Act will be partially funded through a 2 percent surcharge on residential and commercial power bills, with the expectation that adding renewable energy to the state's power grid will save money down the road.
Under the legislation, the main incentive for companies to invest in Illinois is that they will get contracts to sell solar energy to utilities at a set price for 15 years, creating a market that doesn't exist today.
25 percent from wind and solar
The Future Energy Jobs Act set a goal for Illinois to get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind farms, solar farms and rooftop solar panels by 2025. The legislation was billed as a way to strengthen the state's power grid, keep down consumer costs, stimulate job growth and protect the environment.
This spring, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved the Long-Term Renewable Resource Procurement Plan, which provided details on incentives and other guidelines for the community solar program.
"It gives solar developers more clarity about the financial viability of potential projects," Chilsen said. "It gives them a better idea of the returns on their investment."
It's widely accepted that many U.S. energy companies wouldn't build solar farms in Illinois without state incentives, in addition to existing federal tax credits.
To accommodate the sudden interest in solar-farm development, the St. Clair County Board in April approved an ordinance outlining its rules and regulations, said Director of Building and Zoning Anne Markezich. Farms must be built in industrial or agricultural zones and obtain special-use permits.
Markezich began hearing from developers seeking property for solar farms last year. More recently, calls have focused on zoning and other local regulations.
"I am contacted probably once or twice a week by different solar companies," Markezich said.
Three companies have applied for permits to build solar farms in unincorporated St. Clair County. The zoning board has given preliminary approval to four projects, one on 40 acres of the Lindauer farm south of Belleville and three (32 acres each) on the nearby Reifschneider farm. They will be considered Monday night by the St. Clair County Board.
The two developers of the four projects are based in Minnesota. A third developer from Chicago recently applied for a permit to build a 13-acre solar farm north of Smithton. MidAmerica Airport officials also have looked at putting a solar array on their property.
None of these projects are a done deal, even if they get special-use permits. Companies wanting to participate in the community solar program still have to submit applications and probably compete in a state lottery.
St. Clair County and other local taxing districts would benefit from solar farms because the land would yield more in property taxes than farm fields valued at less than market value, said county Assessor Jennifer Gomric.
Senate Bill 486, passed by the Illinois General Assembly and sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner on June 29, would create a standardized formula for assessing solar-farm values ($218,000 per megawatt of electricity produced). It's modeled after a formula already adopted for wind farms in the state.
"(Solar farms) will be taxable, but how much is still up in the air," Gomric said. "The bill hasn't been signed."
Rural neighbors raise concerns
The nationwide solar movement is reaching small Illinois communities that energy companies had never even heard of before the Future Energy Jobs Act passed.
Several companies have made inquiries in Madison County, and one has applied for a special-use permit to build a solar farm at U.S. 40 and Walnut Road near St. Jacob. There's also been interest in Clinton, Washington and Bond counties, where officials are creating solar-farm ordinances that must be approved before applications can be submitted.
On Monday night, Fairmont City's zoning board gave preliminary approval to a 14-acre solar farm whose special-use permit will be considered by the Village Board of Trustees in August, said Village Administrator Scott Penny. It would be built on the east edge of town, next to Indian Mounds Golf Course.
The same developer, Microgrid Energy, is proposing the 26-acre solar farm in Marissa, near Pinckneyville Road and Illinois 4. Notices went out this month to six homeowners and two landowners whose properties border the site or accompanying substation.
Mayor Easton is generally supportive of solar-power initiatives, but he isn't taking a position on the project until neighbors can ask questions and voice their opinions at the rescheduled zoning-board hearing. Not everyone wants a solar farm in his backyard.
"I think the landowners adjacent to the property have legitimate concerns," Easton said. "They're wondering how a solar farm would benefit the village of Marissa and what are the long-term consequences of solar panels. What happens when they're no longer usable? And, just aesthetically, what do 26 acres of solar panels actually look like in practice?"
Microgrid is based in Denver with offices in St. Louis and Chicago. The company is looking at 50 potential sites for solar farms across the state, but not all are likely to be built, said Garrett Peterson, director of project development.
The Marissa farm would consist of 16,000 solar panels, each measuring 4 1/2 by 6 feet, as well as the substation and other equipment needed to transfer electricity to utility lines and ultimately the state's power grid.
"It's providing discounted energy to people in the state of Illinois," Peterson said. "That's the immediate benefit. In the big picture, we're helping to shift energy production from fossil fuel to renewable energy."
Solar-farm developers are generally looking for flat, rectangular or square property with no wetlands or flood risk. They also consider proximity and cost of utility connections, as well as environmental impacts that may require mitigation.
Many residents want to know about equipment noise and reflections off solar panels. Peterson tells them operations are quiet and that panels absorb rather than reflect sunlight. Some people just don't like the industrial look of solar farms, arguing that they ruin the rural scenery and country feel.
Construction can create jobs for local laborers, electricians and fence-builders, but most are temporary.
"I think the overall sentiment is that (solar is) good for the state," Peterson said. "There is a concern that this is something new. There are lots of questions. People just want to know if there are any impacts and how it will affect them."