This week in central Illinois, we’ve seen three straight days of snow, gloomy skies, and temperatures in the single digits. Doesn’t exactly sound like a perfect spot for a bunch of new solar farms, does it?
Yet that’s what may be coming to McLean County. Cypress Creek Renewables wants to build the county’s first three commercial solar installations near Arrowsmith and Downs. The McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals will hold its first hearing on the solar applications Tuesday night.
And McLean County isn’t alone. Solar companies are trying to strike land-lease deals with property owners around Illinois, stoked by government incentives and falling technology costs. Those factors, and others, have made places like Illinois—not exactly sun-tinged Arizona—viable for solar.
The arrival of solar raises new questions for a county more familiar with another form of renewable energy generation—wind. What will the panels look like? Will they be noisy? What happens to the farmland, now and later? If the solar industry goes belly up, what happens to the panels left behind?
Yet local officials and solar experts say they expect solar to be less controversial than the giant wind turbines with blinking red lights that critics say harm the environment—and their view.
“On first glance, I’m excited about it,” said McLean County Board member Jim Soeldner, a Republican from Ellsworth whose district includes the proposed solar project sites. “I feel like it’s a good thing for the farmers in the area and the tax base, so I’m in favor of it at this point.”
Who is Cypress Creek?
Cypress Creek wants to build three separate solar installations, two in Arrowsmith and one in Downs, on 20 to 30 acres of property it will lease. Each one will cost $3.9 million and produce enough electricity to power 300 to 400 single-family homes. Cypress Creek plans to sell the power to Ameren.
Cypress Creek bills itself as the largest and fastest-growing dedicated provider of local solar farms. It’s already won approval to install solar projects in six Illinois counties, hoping McLean County is next.
There are three basic criteria for Cypress Creek when it chooses a location, said Scott Novack, a senior developer who is leading the company’s Illinois efforts. They need at least 20 contiguous acres of relatively flat land—a little rolling topography is OK—near existing electricity infrastructure like distribution lines, and a willing landowner, Novack said.
Cypress Creek may submit a few more applications elsewhere in McLean County, he said.
“We’re really excited to bring solar farms to McLean County,” Novack said. “There are benefits like the property tax revenue increases. But also just the idea of having the clean renewable energy being developed inside of these communities whereby the residents don’t need to invest in their own systems on their own rooftops to enjoy the benefits of what clean technology brings.”
For McLean County, the upsides to solar—beyond a power grid that’s less reliant on fossil fuels—include more property tax revenue and 25 new construction and installation jobs per project. (Cypress Creek says it hires and works with qualified, local subcontractors wherever possible.) Those extra tax dollars come amid flattening revenue elsewhere and rising costs for local governments like McLean County.
Each project is “expected to generate a significant amount of new property tax to McLean County over the course of its 40-year life,” Cypress Creek says in its special-use permit applications. Wind farms already comprise three of the Top 10 biggest property taxpayers in McLean County, records show.
When you think of solar farms, you probably think of some giant, blinding solar array in a Nevada desert. That’s where solar power got its foothold, where there are more sunny days every year.
And yes, Illinois is still scientifically mediocre for solar power, said Samantha Bluemer, energy and conservation specialist in the Land Use Department in Will County, one of the state’s leaders in solar. What’s changed is the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act, paired with a mandate that 25 percent of ComEd’s and Ameren’s power come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2025. Renewable energy credits in Illinois are making solar a better business model in Illinois, Bluemer said. (The Will County Board approved its first special-use permit for solar on Jan. 18.)
And it’s not just Cypress Creek moving in. The Illinois Farm Bureau has heard of at least 30 solar companies that are soliciting landowners around Illinois, said Garrett Thalgott, IFB senior legal counsel.
“So you see these folks from the coasts flocking into Illinois to take advantage of what is now an economically viable development,” Bluemer said. “And we have an abundance of open land.”
In the U.S. only about 1 percent of all electricity generated comes from solar, said Don Fullerton, an energy policy and environmental economics expert with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Two-thirds of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels.
But solar is growing rapidly, Fullerton said.
“It’s not going to take over the world yet. But if solar is going to be only 1 percent of power generation in Illinois too, then you have to start somewhere. It would be a really large project just to get up to 1 percent,” he said.
Meanwhile, the cost of the solar technology itself—all the components that comprise a solar farm—continues to fall, down 70 percent since 2010, said Novack.
“State governments are noticing that and following that closely. They’re noticing that the economics are making sense in areas other than Nevada and California and states that see 300+ days of sunlight,” he said.
There is still some skepticism. The Illinois Farm Bureau has hosted informational meetings around the state over the past two years, answering questions from farmers being approached by solar companies.
“When we first started doing the meetings, there was a real question of whether this was actually real. Was it legitimate? Is there really a solar company that’s actually going to build one of these things?” Thalgott said.
The farm bureau encourages property owners—with a lawyer—to carefully review all aspects of the proposed lease, which is typically 20 to 40 years, he said. They’re encouraged to look closely at what specific acreage could potentially be used in the project. The IFB has also been talking a lot about decommissioning, he said. (“Decommissioning and dismantling of the solar installation is not expected to occur until over 30 years after the facility is constructed,” Cypress Creek says in its application.)
“There’s going to have to be some kind of a decommissioning program,” said Soeldner, the county board member. “They’ll have to be some money put in escrow for that.”
Soeldner said there may be some opposition to the solar projects from agriculture advocates who don’t want to see productive farmland converted to non-farm use. Cypress Creek's preference "is to disturb the land as little as possible," he added.
"While we can and will certainly make sites work on subpar farm ground, there are simply not enough of those opportunities for the State of Illinois to meet its energy goals," Novack said.
Solar installations take more acreage out of farm production, compared with wind farms. But it’s easier to return the land to farm use later, said Novack.
“What’s nice about solar is that it’s just a temporary use. And when it’s done, the land is returned to its original condition,” said Novack.
The Cypress Creek projects may ultimately be less controversial than wind because the solar installations are so much shorter—typically no taller than 10 feet—and quieter. There’s no noise at the property edge, said Novack.
Solar is also arguably a less “intense” type of land use than wind, said Thalgott. Wind farms require large construction cranes and deep holes for the turbines. Solar requires less concrete to place, he said.
“Whereas solar farms, there’s not really that same level of intensity when it comes to construction,” he said.
And yes, the leases can be a nice source of new revenue for property owners. But during the leasing process, Thalgott encourages property owners to not think about the money.
“I try to have people focus on things other than the money. The money is always going to be there. It’s only money to some of these companies. There’s lots of money out there. We want to make sure that landowners at least know what they may get into if they do sign one of these (leases) so they don’t say 10 years down the line, ‘Oh my gosh, the money seemed really great, but had I known A, B, C, it wouldn’t have been worth it to me,’” he said.
The McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals will discuss the Cypress Creek projects during its meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday. It will make a recommendation to the full McLean County Board for a vote.
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