From Plants To Panels: Solar Debate Plays Out In Fields Around Illinois

By Madelyn Beck

Rural counties are facing a lot of heat over Illinois’ booming solar power development.

The big push started in late 2016 when the state legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Act. It sets aside at least $180 million yearly to help fund renewable energies like solar, which will help the state meet its goal of generating 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025.

“It seems like almost every day, we see a news article from somewhere around the state of a county board or a county zoning board meeting concerning solar projects” said Anthony Star, director of Illinois Power Agency.

Star said many get approved, but some don’t because of a community backlash.

In 2017, less than one percent of the state’s energy came from solar, but the state’s solar production is expected to grow 20 times larger in the next few years, according to the Illinois Power Agency. Most of the growth will come from giant, utility-grade projects. However, it’s the small projects that are causing the most hang-ups.

At least a few dozen Illinois landowners want to take up community solar projects on their private property. They’re built so that people can buy into the projects and possibly cash in on any savings from the solar field. However, this forces counties to not only adopt new solar zoning regulations —  which some didn’t have before 2016 — but also face arguments between neighbors over whether it should be allowed at all.

Brian McFadden, Sangamon County’s administrator, said the county started planning for solar when the Future Energy Jobs Act passed. Still, he said it has been a challenge balancing the concerns of rural residents who hate to see “good black earth” going to waste and urban residents who fear a change to property values.

“So that’s kind of the tug-of war that we’re dealing with. So we think the adoption of longer setbacks and some screening requirements, we think we’ve got something in places that meets those two challenges,” he said, noting the requirement that solar fields be set back at least 250 feet from existing homes.

The Sangamon County board said it would allow two new solar projects. Even so, McFadden said regulations are still in flux as new concerns crop up, like noxious weeds or plants that could be detrimental to neighboring soybean or corn fields.

“You learn as you’re kinda going through these things,” he said. “You hate to say that because you want people to think you know everything upfront. But the fact is, when you get into things, other issues develop and you take a look at that as well.”

Those who oppose the solar farms at county meetings cite dozens of reasons. Some are concerned about cleanup after solar farms are done being used, though state regulations have tried to address that.  

Others worry about reduced property value or losing the aesthetics of open fields. It’s hard to say whether solar panels would affect neighboring property values because there’s limited research. What is certain, though, is that installing solar panels in fields often replaces farming.

“I can’t see taking this precious resource and covering it with, for instance, solar panels,” said Dale Carlson, a farmer in Knox County. “There’s better places to put it.”

He opposed a few solar developments trying to get county permits earlier this year. Carlson said he believes the permits allow solar to act like other types of development, which have taken over thousands of acres of farmland over the last decade.

“We can use these energies if we put them in the proper places,” he said, mentioning that solar could benefit schools and nursing homes, or even give use to property over an old landfill.

Nevertheless, Knox County Commissioners allowed both projects to move forward, stating that the project met all the requirements to get a permit.

Despite the opposition, many favor solar farms. Some support the installations because they don’t release as many carbon emissions as coal or natural gas, which contribute to climate change. Others are excited to have extra income from a property, a few more jobs in the area and extra tax income for local schools and infrastructure.

Solar companies are pretty excited, too, taking heart that solar would for sure be getting help from state dollars.

“We’re doing just hordes of solar installations. As are many developers across the state,” said Brian Haug, director of energy solutions at Continental Electric and president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association.

Haug said he has a bias, but he loves the look of solar and is glad to see how the discussion around the energy source has grown around the state.

“It’s a good thing that’s happening and the discussions are happening and people are learning more about the green, clean solar energy, and I think it’s a great discussion that everybody is going through,” he said.

However, not all the new solar projects going up will get incentives.

To Do or Die

The Illinois Power Agency, or IPA, is the middle-guy between energy producers and utilities. It’s there to make sure the state gets adequate, affordable energy that’s environmentally friendly and reaches its goal of having 25 percent of Illinois energy generation coming from renewable sources by 2025.  Star, IPA’s director, said the agency has a program to incentivize renewable energies through renewable energy credits, some of which is going to smaller community solar projects. However, he said the solar portion of the approximately $230 million going to all renewable projects isn’t nearly enough to help all the planned solar arrays.

“The interest in developers to develop community solar projects is orders of magnitude larger than the funding that will be initially available to support those programs,” he said.

Star said the agency will likely run a lottery to decide which companies get renewable energy credits for their solar projects, and the Illinois Power Agency will start taking applications for that starting January 15 of next year. Those who don’t get it, or find out that getting connected to the grid is more expensive than they thought, may end up being the center of a county controversy where nothing happens at all.

Correction: This story was corrected Sept. 25. It incorrectly stated that tax credits were involved. While some projects also receive tax credits from federal programs, the Illinois program run through IPA uses renewable energy credits. It was also written in a way that made the IPA’s approximate $230 million program costs seem like they were all going to solar, when in fact they were going to all renewable energies being helped by the program. One quote also stated “county zoning board” misheard as “county solar board” in a recording.