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GOING GREEN

McLean County sees renewable energy boom — for now

Wind farms return in force, solar emerges

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A vehicle drives westbound on U.S. Highway 150 as wind turbines, part of the White Oak Energy Center wind farm, loom in the background. The 150-megawatt farm is located between Carlock and Normal. Renewable energy projects have surged in the county, with five pending before its Zoning Board of Appeals. 

BLOOMINGTON — A strong market, improving technology and expiring federal incentives have brought a renewable energy boom to McLean County — but it could be short-lived.

After nearly a decade of dormancy, wind development has returned to the county in force in 2018, through two projects that could more than double production from current wind farms, and a solar market that is emerging as well.

That burst of activity might shut down the possibility of any more, however, according to an Illinois State University expert.

“If everything gets built, that’ll probably use up the transmission capacity we have available,” said David Loomis, director of ISU's Center for Renewable Energy. "That would be the end of new projects being built."

That logjam could be avoided if any of the five projects before McLean County's Board of Zoning Appeals this winter is not actually built, however.

That's happened before, including with the project the board is currently discussing: Houston-based EDP Renewables North America's Bright Stalk Wind Farm near Chenoa, which was first approved in 2010. The company, then called Horizon Wind Energy LLC, later shelved the project.

"Just like the rest of the economy, the wind industry had a setback after the financial crisis of 2007 (and) 2008," said Katie Chapman, a project manager for EDP. "Since then, the economy has stabilized, the technology has improved, and we saw a great opportunity to invest in McLean County again through our Bright Stalk Wind Farm."

EDP now plans to start construction as soon as possible on the 200-megawatt wind farm, buoyed by cheaper technology and the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit — a federal incentive for wind farms that start construction before 2020 that pays out less with each successive year.

At the same time, Chicago-based Invenergy is moving toward construction on its $300-million, 250-megawatt McLean County Wind Energy Center, also near Chenoa after the zoning board signed off on it last week. The full McLean County Board is expected to consider the project Feb. 20.

The company decided to move forward with the project now thanks to improving market conditions for wind power and lower-cost technology, said Kevin Parzyck, vice president of development.

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Katie Chapman, a project manager for EDP Renewables North America, proposes the idea of the Bright Stalk Wind Farm, which would be located near Chenoa, Lawndale and Yates townships, during a McLean County Zoning Board of Appeals meeting Thursday at the Government Center in downtown Bloomington.

Illinois' Future Energy Jobs Act, passed in 2016, also is a factor. The act was most notable in Central Illinois for bailing out Clinton's Exelon nuclear plant, but it also introduced incentives fueling new wind and solar development, and it calls for 25 percent of Illinois power production to be renewable by 2025.

Parzyck also credited the area's remaining transmission capacity for making Invenergy's McLean County Wind Energy Center feasible.

“We continue to look in McLean County, in part because we believe there’s additional transmission capacity,” said Parzyck. “We do our own engineering studies to evaluate it, but it is a moving target.”

Chapman said EDP also continues to consider building more in the county, but transmission capacity is a factor.

"While the current capacity is adequate for Bright Stalk Wind Farm, one of the best ways to attract more clean energy investments and make the county a leader in the new energy economy is to increase transmission capacity," she said. "So long as we can secure additional transmission capacity and willing participants in our projects, there are no additional impediments for us expanding upon our work."

Cypress Creek already is planning at least one more project locally, said Phil Dick, the county's building and zoning director.

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Wind turbines, part of the White Oak Energy Center wind farm, loom over a harvested field along Ziebarth Road in Normal. 

“I actually think there’s going to be more activity on solar than there is on wind going forward,” said Loomis. "If you look at the Future Energy Jobs Act, a lot of that was oriented more toward solar than wind."

Whether that expansion will lead to more transmission capacity is the looming question, said Loomis. Adding transmission capacity is expensive and complicated, and Parzyck said Invenergy's growth is driven partly by older energy sources like coal that are winding down and freeing capacity anyway.

“There's been some calls for building new transmission capacity because we don’t have enough, and we don’t have it in the right places," Loomis said. "But that will take several years to build and plan and permit and so forth."

Parzyck said wind development is likely to continue locally even after federal incentives expire because they succeeded in jump-starting the market.

The county currently has two wind farms: Twin Groves Wind Farm, a two-phase, 198-megawatt farm near Ellsworth, and White Oak Energy Center, a 150-megawatt farm near Carlock.

“It’s going to be more a case of, there won’t be as much of a need for any tax incentive because you’ve established this solid footing for us to continue to develop projects and deliver it into the system,” said Parzyck. “We've built this great industry that will keep growing.”

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Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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