Solar array shutdown: Princeton officials revisit the denied IMEA project proposal, look forward to what’s next

Mayor believes politics played a role in the rejection of plan; others say location drove their vote

An aerial view of the lot numbers 12, 13, and 15 at the Princeton Industrial Park on Thursday, Jan 12, 2023 in Princeton.

The Princeton City Council denied an Illinois Municipal Electrical Agency petition for a 1-megawatt solar array by a 2-2-1 vote Feb. 6. It would have been located in the city’s tech park.

This decision came after a 3-2 recommendation from the Princeton Planning Commission on Jan. 10 and a Jan. 16 council tabling after hearing comments and concerns from surrounding businesses, landowners and community members.

With all voting members expressing their support of solar projects in Princeton, some wondered why the project received a descending vote. Location and politics played roles in the ultimate denial, city officials said.

Mayor Joel Quiram, who voted to approve the project, said he believes the array was in the best interest of the city and its residents based on the state’s movement toward being 100% fossil-fuel free by 2050.

“Whether that aggressive approach by the state is attainable is beside the point – it is what we are faced with today,” Quiram said. “The project was free to the city, including post-development maintenance. It would have cost us nothing.”

Quiram added that Princeton has been known for progress, and the visibility of the tech park solar array could have attracted other like-minded renewable-energy tech companies to look at Princeton for possible expansion.

“We would have been an early municipal leader in renewable energy sources,” Quiram said. “We should always be a forward-thinking community and embrace projects that benefit the city.”

Council member Jerry Neumann, who also voted to approve the project, echoed Quiram’s support for the project, adding that it could have been a first step toward modernizing the city’s infrastructure.

“It was a rare opportunity for the city to participate in producing green energy for the community,” Neumann said. “Also, it was a fully funded project, which means no tax dollars would be used to build and maintain the solar array. It was a win-win for everyone.”

During public comment sections of previous meetings, the strongest opposition came from Pat Schou, executive director of the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network, and Sam Fisher, former president and CEO of the Illinois Press Association.

We would have been an early municipal leader in renewable energy sources.

—  Princeton Mayor Joel Quiram

Along with other concerns regarding provisions required to build in the area, most speakers’ main concern was the location in the tech park. The array was slated to be located next to the existing ICAHN building at 1945 Van’s Way.

An aerial view of the lot numbers 12, 13, and 15 at the Princeton Industrial Park on Thursday, Jan 12, 2023 in Princeton.

The location concern resonated with some of the officials who decided the tech park was not the correct place for the solar array.

Council member Mike McCall, who voted against the project, said that although he believes in solar energy moving forward, he believes another location would be better for Princeton.

“There is another site around the transfer station that we feel is a much better location for a solar farm,” McCall said. “It has more acreage and allows for more solar energy to be produced.

“Originally I did agree, in the very early stages, that we should look at [the tech park]. But after doing a deeper dive with community members, planning commission members and the council ... we felt it is a better location at the other site mentioned.”

Council member Martin Makransky, who joined McCall in voting against the project, agreed with McCall, saying that he believes a location near the transfer station would be better for the project.

“If we wait a year to expand out at the transfer station, production costs will double by then,” Makransky said. “I also think we needed to have been involved sooner in the tech park decision.”

Neumann said he did not have any issues with the tech park location, even adding that the location felt appropriate.

“It is a large space that has not been looked at by potential buyers for several years,” Neumann said. “It made sense for us to put it to use.”

Quiram said the problem he had with the location was addressing the concerns of ICAHN, which he believed was done through the work of providing landscaping plans to Schou and sharing details on the planned look of the array.

“In my opinion, with these two concerns addressed, this was the green light needed to move forward with the project,” Quiram said. “Unfortunately, politics played a destructive role in this project being rejected.”

Neumann said that after listening to the issues presented to the council, he said the value of the project outweighed the complaints presented.

“This was a great project that needed to be approved,” Neumann said. “I was disappointed that two of my colleagues did not see the value the solar array would bring to the community.”

Council member Hector Gomez, who elected to abstain from voting based on his connection to Schou and under advice from the city attorney, said he agreed with McCall and Makransky that the location was not suitable for a solar farm.

“The proposed location was not suitable, as it is built with water and sewer, which a solar farm would not need to be functional,” Gomez said. “Also, expandability is not feasible in this location.”

Mayoral candidate Ray Mabry said he agrees with McCall, Makransky and Gomez in that the transfer station would be a better location for a proposed solar array.

“This site has some distinct advantages over the originally proposed site,” Mabry said. “It is a larger site, allowing for additional installations of panels, and the site does not have city water nor city sanitary sewer.

“By focusing our efforts on the transfer station site, we free up the first site chosen in the tech park for a future end user who needs these utilities.”

Although some believe the transfer station to be a better location, Quiram said the change isn’t a perfect one.

“While the tech park costs us nothing, that is not so at the transfer station area,” Quiram said. “There are accessibility issues to address and transmission issues in joining the city’s distribution lines. They will both be costly.”

All voting city officials said they are not opposed to solar projects as a whole, and they would be willing to listen and participate in conversations surrounding them in the future.

It is important that we move forward and not look back to make our community more sustainable and for future growth.”

—  City Council member Mike McCall

“There are already wheels in motion to look at [the transfer station] as a better alternative for future growth and a better offering to our community,” McCall said. “It is important that we move forward and not look back to make our community more sustainable and for future growth.”

Although open to a project at a different location, with state mandates on the horizon, Quiram said he is worried about the timeframe and the cost moving forward.

“It will be costly, and the timing, while a viable project, it will be upwards of two years before a solar farm will occupy the transfer area,” Quiram said.

“The IMEA is also interested in the transfer station site, but where they paid for all costs associated with the tech park location, as the project was a year in the works, that will not be the case at the transfer station area. We only got those city-free costs once.”

Princeton City Hall