Central Illinois has long been known for corn and soybean production. But the landscape has changed, both literally and figuratively, and wind energy production is catching up.
Yet despite the money they can bring landowners and government bodies, wind farm projects are not without their detractors.
“I was around when we didn’t have any utility-sized wind in the state,” said David Loomis, an economics professor at Illinois State University considered an expert on wind energy in Central Illinois. “In 2007, (Illinois) passed a renewable portfolio standard to build 25 percent renewables by the year 2025, and it also required that 75 percent of that renewable energy come from wind, in particular.”
The state's first wind farm opened in 2003 near Mendota, about 80 miles north of Bloomington. By 2018, turbines half the height of the St. Louis Arch spun wind into 6.8 percent of the state’s generated electricity and more than 8 percent of electrical power sales.
The state now has 50 wind farms and ranks sixth in the country with 2,778 operational wind turbines, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Vision Scenario says Illinois could produce enough wind energy by 2030 to power the equivalent of 7.2 million average American homes.
Already, McLean County leads Illinois in the number of turbines and soon will have four wind farms.
“We generate more wind than any county in Illinois,” McLean County Building and Zoning Director Phil Dick said, “and that’s before we include the two new farms being built.”
Bats, birds and neighbors
More and more of the state's wind farm projects are being located in the central and south-central part of the state. But no matter where they are located, creating a wind farm almost always is a long and complicated process.
In DeWitt County, for instance, Tradewind Energy first pitched the idea of Alta Farms in 2007, but after several fits and starts, still doesn't have a special-use permit from the county. Another vote is expected early next year; in the meantime, the company has been acquired by Italian company Enel Green Power, with North American headquarters in Andover, Mass.
“The research continues to point to more and more negative impacts of these wind developments on the communities they are built in,” said Andrea Rhoades, who lives in the DeWitt County town of Kenney. “But more telling than the research is speaking to the residents living with them day in and day out. Their actual experiences with them and what they have to deal with is what convinced me to fight for my neighbors.”
Opponents argue turbines don't generate as much electricity as traditional power plants over their 20-year life span, are ugly, and lower property values. Other concerns include their effect on livestock and wildlife, and worries about how wind patterns affect weather radar. Meteorologists in the Lincoln office have declined to comment on that topic because National Weather Service is a government-funded agency.
Keith M. Shank, whose office at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources addresses possible effects on wildlife, provided a written statement to DeWitt County leaders last year. “The department’s role in the consultation process is to address potential adverse effects to natural areas and endangered species, and to fish and wildlife habitat more generally,” he wrote. “The population of bald eagles at Clinton Lake and along Salt Creek has been increasing, and numerous turbines are proposed within 10 miles of known bald eagle nests. The protection of bald eagles is a federal responsibility.”
He said turbines take a far greater toll on bats than on birds. Turbines at current wind farms kill an average of 15 bats per year but the Alta Farms turbines are larger and can be expected to kill higher numbers of bats, his letter said.
At Heartland Community College in Normal, which has had a single turbine for seven years, a study revealed using software to reduce turbine speed can cut bat mortality in half. Bats are important to the ecosystem because they eat mosquitoes, moths and other insect pests.
The problem occurs when tree-roosting bats mistake a turbine as a tree and get hit by blades; tips of the blades at turbines like the one at Heartland move 140 to 150 mph.
McLean leads the state
Supporters of wind farms point not only to the green energy benefits, but how the projects create jobs, improve infrastructure, make money and provide secondary community benefits. In DeWitt County, for instance, a shuttered manufacturing company found new life as a place to build turbines.
The Twin Groves Wind Farm in eastern McLean County went online in March 2007 after years of planning. Owned then by Horizon Wind Energy, Twin Groves was the nation’s second largest wind farm. The operation is now owned by Houston-based EDP Renewables North America.
“That was a pretty large wind farm and had two phases, including 260 turbines,” said Dick, the McLean County building and zoning director.
Twin Groves set in motion a trend in which McLean County leads every other Illinois county in installed turbines. Lee County in northern Illinois ranks second; Livingston County is third.
Radford Run, with some 139 wind turbines north of Warrensburg and west of Maroa, went online last year. Over the course of the project, Macon County is expected to receive an additional $6.1 million in property tax revenue. Austin, Maroa, Illini and Hickory Point townships will share the remaining $7.8 million.
The $220 million Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Tazewell and Logan counties has spurred about $54.1 million in local spending within a 50-mile radius, company officials say.
Landowners near Mount Pulaski soon will see an additional 24 wind turbines from the 5,000-acre Whitney Hill Wind Farm, adjacent to the recently completed, 74-turbine Hill Topper Wind Farm.
“For Illinois consumers, clean energy is increasingly synonymous with affordable energy,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board. "We are very pleased that Enel’s new Hill Topper facility is operational, as it expands Illinois’ renewable energy supply — which leads to more favorable market prices for all consumers of electricity — while also unleashing job growth and economic development in the state.”
Wind farm developers emphasize the economic benefits — both in construction jobs and property tax revenues — when pitching a project.
Twin Groves, for instance, represents a capital investment of about $871 million, with $31.2 million in cumulative payments to local governments through 2018, according to its owner's website. The project created 397 full-time equivalent jobs during construction and 34 permanent jobs. Through 2018, about $108 million has been spent within 50 miles of the wind farm.
McLean County has collected more than $48 million in property taxes since wind farms went online in 2007 and McLean County schools have received more than $31 million, according to records from the McLean County Treasurer's Office.
Tradewind Energy Senior Development Director Tom Swierczewski said Alta Farms would help a county whose residents' annual income is $5,000 below the state average of almost $33,000 per capita.
“(DeWitt) county is projected to see over $13.8 million in new earnings during construction, and over $22 million in revenue for Clinton schools over the life of the project,” he said.
In McLean County, more than $27.7 million was paid to Twin Groves Wind Farm landowners through 2018. Participating landowners have long-term lease and easement agreements that cover turbines, access roads, and transmission corridors. The private contracts are kept confidential, and vary between companies and location.
A report by the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University, said a change in assessed land value affects the amount school districts receive from wind farms, but it's still an improvement.
“Although the school district collects increased local property tax revenue from the wind farm, it receives less from general state aid because of the increases in Equalized Assessed Value (EAV) due to the wind farm," the report said. "However, the reduction in state aid is much smaller than the increased tax revenue.”
Turbines as tall as the Arch
Before a project starts, wind farm developers secure leases with landowners to put a turbine on their property, often in corn or soybean fields. Zoning laws vary by county, but generally prohibit towers next to homes. At a minimum, in most cases, the distance from home to turbine has to be 1 percent greater than the height of the tower.
“Setbacks haven't changed significantly since we started,” said Dick, the McLean County building and zoning director. “The setbacks are 1,500 feet, or three times the height from the base of the turbine to the tip of the blade. The things that have changed is that some turbines are taller than they were.”
In DeWitt County, Tradewind Energy proposes turbines of 599 feet tall, which would be the tallest in the state, and just slightly shorter than the Gateway Arch at 630 feet. Twin Groves turbines are 280 feet tall.
Dallas-based Trinity Industries spent millions beginning in 2007 to retool its shuttered railcar manufacturing plant in Clinton, where it now builds wind turbines. Now owned by Arcosa Inc., the facility's workers produce 300-foot towers that weigh more than 130 tons and have base sections 15 feet in diameter.
Carried by extended semi trailers, the towers are delivered in three sections to wind farms within 600 miles of the plant, including the Rail Splitter Wind Farm that straddles Logan and Tazewell counties. Tradewind worked with Arcosa to see if it could build the Alta Farms turbines, despite the higher heights, but none of the four possible turbine models in Tradewind's most recent applications are built by Arcosa.
Numerous, lengthy hearings
In Illinois, wind farm developers must submit paperwork for a special-use permit to the county in which they hope to locate. A zoning administrator reviews the application and submits it first to a regional planning commission and then to a zoning board of appeals. Those boards must issue a positive or negative recommendation, or none at all. The recommendations are forwarded to the county board, which makes the final decision.
"We, as the county," don't really know all the ducks in a row that wind farm developers have to put in place," Dick said. "They don't contact us until they have those ducks in a row."
Public hearings can be numerous and lengthy. The Alta Farms' application, in DeWitt County, resulted in more than 40 hours of testimony before the planning commission and zoning board. In October, during a second attempt at a special-use permit, the planning commission provided a "no recommendation" to the county board. A series of meetings are scheduled in January for the zoning board, with the county expected to consider the application in the spring.
Several county boards in Illinois have tightened restrictions and amended ordinances that make it tougher on developers, and opponents and supporters often clash in public hearings.
“My problem is the impact a wind turbine can have on a non-participating land-owner,” said Jamie Rowan of rural Bloomington. “If you are not making money from it, then it is just an eyesore."
But, said Joel Eska of rural Logan County, “the property tax revenue a wind farm can bring to a county or a school district can be very beneficial. “It’s agriculture. It’s harvesting wind. Something farmers are expected to do.”
Amy Kurt, senior manager of regional government affairs for EDP Renewables, said there is something to be learned from the opposition.
“A lot of the opposition we see is driven by fear of the unknown and special interests trying to spread misinformation about wind power," said Kurt, whose company owns Twin Groves I, Rail Splitter and Hill Topper wind farms. "One thing we’ve learned is that community engagement, transparency, and education are keys to success. Every type of development faces opposition — whether it is a factory, housing complex, shopping mall, or wind farm — but if we educate the community early on and are available to answer questions, it makes the development process much easier.”
Floyd Morefield of rural Bloomington has two turbines on his property as part of Twin Groves Wind Farm, and believes opponents don’t appreciate the economic benefits.
“I believe wind farms are a part of the future,” he said. “In McLean County, we have seen improvements to roads and schools. I hope that our elected officials can see the economic benefits of wind development.”
Contact Kevin Barlow at (309) 820-3238. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_barlow