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Daily Journal
     August 31, 2022      #40-243 KDJ
 
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The solar farm on Splear Road in rural Kankakee is one of a growing number of solar farms in Kankakee County. Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette

Solar farms gaining foothold in Kankakee

By Chris Breach
cbreach@daily-journal.com


For more than two centuries, Illinois has been fertile ground for farming, relying on the abundance of sunshine and precipitation.

While family farms will always provide an abundance of food that ends up on dinner tables, some land that once had rows of corn, soybeans or wheat now just has grids of solar panels, relying solely on sunshine.

That transformation in Illinois, and across the country, is also taking place in Kankakee County. According to the Kankakee County planning department, there are more than seven solar farms built or in the process of being built in the county.

“These are community solar farms,” said Delbert Skimmerhorn, director of planning and GIS for Kankakee County. “These are the ones that you can subscribe to.”

Someone who wants to have solar power, but can’t put panels on their home or property can buy into one of the community solar farms to get their power, Skimmerhorn added.

Now, much like how wind farms have dotted the Illinois landscape in the past two decades, solar farms are popping up in several communities.

There are 102 solar farm projects that are operational in Illinois that have the capacity to produce 703 megawatts, according to the Clean Grid Alliance. As of February 2022, $15 billion has been invested in solar and wind projects combined in Illinois, the Clean Grid Alliance reported.

A single megawatt of solar power has the capacity to produce electricity that equates to about the same amount of electricity consumed by 164 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Recently, the Kankakee County Zoning Board of Appeals granted special use permits for TurningPoint Energy to develop two more solar farms, one in Bourbonnais at the intersection of East 4000N Road and North 5500E Road, and one in Manteno near Diversatech.

The 4000N Road site in Ganeer Township will be about 40 acres, and the one in Manteno Township will be about 30 acres.

Both solar farms received approval by the county’s Planning-Zoning-Agriculture Committee on Aug. 17, and will go before the Kankakee County Board for approval on Sept. 13.

After the solar farms get local approval, they must also get approved by the state of Illinois before construction begins.

In Kankakee County, 72% of the land is dedicated to farming, and agriculture generates 17% of the local economy, said Chad Miller, manager of Kankakee County Farm Bureau. Roughly, one in 12 jobs in the county is tied to agriculture.

“When farmland is taken out of production, it potentially could disrupt the agriculture industry in the area,” Miller said. “Many times when farmland is taken out of production, it doesn’t return to production.”

The community solar farms that have now been built or being constructed in Kankakee County are in the 2 megawatt, 20-acre range in size, but the new ones being proposed are 5 megawatt, 40-acre range.

“We hope that land that’s removed from production is marginal farmland, and that our very best farmland is not removed from production,” Miller said. “The Farm Bureau organization supports property rights. If a landowner wishes to pursue solar development or any other developments on their land, we don’t want to stand in their way.”

UTILITY FARMS

Another solar program that the state is managing is the utility solar farms that are much, much larger. One of those solar farms, Heritage Prairie Renewable by Pattern Energy, is being proposed in Kankakee County near Essex, and it will encompass 2,800 acres. It will be larger than all the other solar farms now in operation in the county.

“That’s an entirely separate approval process with the state,” said Skimmerhorn, who added the utility solar farms are large, more than 100 acres and more than 50 megawatts. “... Those are a power plant, making power for the general public at large just like any other power plant.”

Pattern Energy is also proposing the Heritage Prairie Wind project that will be in western Kankakee County and northeastern Livingston County. According to Heritage Prairie Renewable’s application, the total project is an investment of $1 billion in Illinois.

In addition, the land leases will generate more than $200 million in payments to landowners over the life of the project. It also provides an estimated $6.8 million per year to local communities, according to the application.

Tim Nugent, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, said renewable energy is in demand.

“There’s a need for electricity,” Nugent said. “The farmers have done a great job of producing food from the land that they have. At some point there’s going to be a tipping point of losing too much farmland. We’re decades away from that happening.”

Heritage Prairie estimates the projects will create 800 to 1,000 wind construction jobs and 300 to 400 solar construction jobs, including heavy equipment operators, electricians, laborers and others.

“It’s millions of dollars of investment,” Nugent said. “... It’s been quite an investment for Kankakee County that never existed four years ago.”

Heritage Prairie Renewable will be designed as a 500 to 600 megawatt wind facility and a 300 MW solar facility. The target construction would begin this year with completion expected in 2023 or 2024.

SEEKING INPUT

At the recent Zoning Appeals Board meeting, there was time allotted for public comment for or against TurningPoint Energy’s request for the special use permit. No residents were there to voice their opinion.

Public input is expected for the proposed solar and wind project by Heritage Prairie Renewable, so the public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 in the fourth floor auditorium at the Kankakee Public Library in the Executive Centre building.

“There’s a lot of farmland that isn’t real good,” said John Fetherling, county board member and chairman of the Zoning, Planning and Agriculture committee. “I noticed that the ones that we approved, ... they were on the corner that had the bad ground. Or they were somewhere that had too much sand, or they were getting a low yield, so they didn’t take the best piece [of land].”

Fetherling agreed with Miller that the property owner has the right do what he sees fit for the farm.

“However, we do encourage landowners to look at all of the details, the length of the agreement,” Miller said. “If there’s any other opportunity that they would want to pursue with their land. ... These solar agreements are very long term. We ask that the land owners consider the impact to their neighbors.

“We encourage land owners to consult with an attorney to make sure they fully understand the terms of the agreement. A lot of times it’s a very lengthy agreement.”

Miller’s other concern, especially if more utility solar farms are built, is the potential impact they will have on the total agriculture industry.

“If enough farmland is removed from production here in the Kankakee County area, that may impact fertilizer suppliers, all the ancillary equipment dealers, seed sales people. It could have an impact on the rest of agriculture industry.”

Solar farms built in Kankakee County

*Gar Creek Solar Farm --  near Kankakee Community College

*Goodrich Solar Farm --  south of Bonfield

*Griggs Solar -- north of Momence

* Kankakee Solar -- southwest of Manteno

* Nostrand Solar -- south of Manteno

* Peterman Solar -- south of Aroma Park

* Spring Creek -- south of Sun River Terrace

* Yonke Solar -- southwest of Kankakee 

* Vulcan Solar -- west of Kankakee

All of these solar farms produce 2 megawatts of power.

SourceEconomic Alliance of Kankakee County, Clean Grid Alliance.

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Most solar farms in Kankakee County have 2 megawatts of capacity, which is enough to power approximately 350 homes. Each farm is situated on 10-20 acres of land leased from local landowners. Submitted photo

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