Solar Farms Set to Sprout Across Illinois
by Robert Channick
A new crop is ready to sprout on Illinois farms, with gleaming solar panels supplanting rows of corn and soybeans.
Drawn by new state requirements and incentives, renewable energy developers are staking out turf on the rural fringes of the Chicago area and beyond, looking to build dozens of solar farms to feed the electric grids of Commonwealth Edison and other utilities.
It’s a potential sea change in the Illinois energy landscape that proponents say is long overdue and will provide customers with a green power alternative. But the rise of solar power also has generated opposition from some residents over everything from changing landscapes to toxicity concerns.
The fledgling solar energy boom is driven by the Future Energy Jobs Act, which took effect last year and requires Illinois utilities to get 25 percent of their retail power from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025.
Solar power, which has been growing in other parts of the U.S., has yet to make much of a dent in Illinois. The state is looking to change that with a call to add 2,800 megawatts of new solar energy over the next few years — enough to power about 450,000 homes, experts say.
Earlier this month, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved an update to the state’s plan for utilities to buy renewable energy credits. The plan includes a blueprint that specifies production by new large-scale solar farms, community solar gardens and rooftop solar installations to meet the state’s renewable energy goals.
“This is an inflection point for Illinois where we’re going to start seeing rapid renewable energy growth,” said Brad Klein, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “It’s a huge ramp-up of the amount of solar in the state. It really put Illinois on the map as a leader.”
Just outside the Chicago metro area, Kankakee County is becoming a hotbed of solar development thanks to its relatively inexpensive farmland and ready access to the ComEd grid. There are 25 proposed solar farms in the pipeline, said Delbert Skimerhorn, the county’s planning department manager.
“It seems like we’re going to become the renewable energy capital of Illinois,” Skimerhorn said.