New state law causes boom in solar farm proposals

SPRINGFIELD (Illinois News Network) — A recent Illinois law is behind solar farm proposals across the state.

The Future Energy Jobs Act, which took effect last year, requires Illinois utilities to get 25 percent of their retail power from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, said the new interest is no coincidence.

“Solar companies have responded to that and there are now probably about 1,000 megawatts of solar projects that have applied for interconnection, which is one of the first steps in building a project,” Gallagher said. “Illinois said the market is open and solar developers … want to supply solar power to [those] customers.”

One area that has seen a spike in solar farm applications is Boone County in far northern Illinois. Karl Johnson, Boone County board chairman, says they’ve received more than a dozen proposals and already have approved a handful of them. He says, once built, the facilities could help local budgets.

“There certainly would be some increased revenues for the county and all the taxing bodies that receive funds through the property taxes,” Johnson said. “The school districts would benefit immensely.”

Gallagher said it makes sense that more rural areas, like Boone County, are the ones where developers are focused. A typical 2-megawatt solar farm operates on 10 to 15 acres of land.

“We have seen in other states some real benefits for rural landowners,” Gallagher said. “Solar projects tend to pay higher lease payments than growers leasing farmland.”

Johnson said Boone County largely hasn’t experienced complaints or protests about these projects that occasionally come with wind energy proposals.

“For the most part they don’t really move,” Johnson said. “They don’t make any noise. There’s no light that flashes in the middle of the night. There’s nothing. They just kinda sit there.”

“You’ve also seen a recent trend to encourage solar developers to make their sites pollinator-friendly after the site is developed,” Gallagher said. “To have native grasses on the solar sites, which encourages bee production and that can be beneficial for rural landowners nearby.

A measure signed into law this year in Illinois does just that. It also creates standards that will allow the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to score how friendly a solar site is to pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies.

Illinois ranked 34th in the country in solar power produced in 2017, but that soon could change. Data from the SEIA indicates the state is on track to increase the amount of solar produced in the state by almost 1,000 percent over the next five years.