Farmers defend their land use for solar energy ahead of DeKalb County Board vote
“In a grand scale, isn’t that what we need to do with energy production in general?” said Jamie Walter, of DeKalb. “We need to start thinking about future generations and how we’re going to leave the earth.
Jamie Walter’s name might be noteworthy around these parts due to the success of his distillery, Whiskey Acres, based in DeKalb.
What some might not know, however, is he’s one of many local farmers looking to lease hundreds of acres of land for solar energy projects headed to the DeKalb County Board this week for a vote.
Walter said contrary to assumptions, he’s “already in the energy business.” Walter farms hundreds of acres of corn, and the majority of it gets shipped to the CHS Ethanol Plant in Rochelle to be made into fuel. About 40% of corn crop in the United States gets turned over, from seed to kernel, for ethanol production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He’s been approached at least five times from various energy production companies looking to use his land for solar panels. It wasn’t until Texas-headquartered Leeward Renewable Energy broached the topic that he agreed to the terms.
“In a grand scale, isn’t that what we need to do with energy production in general?” Walter said. “We need to start thinking about future generations and how we’re going to leave the earth. One of those ways is to do a better job with our energy production as we transfer from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy production. We have to put these systems in, and this is a great spot for it.”
Three solar energy projects have been the subject of debate locally over the past few months. Opponents lamented risks of neighboring home values deteriorating amid large solar panels. Proponents argued the benefits of solar energy and property tax revenue to the area made for a compelling case. The County Board has held several public hearings to better assess public opinion and in August expanded the amount of local land eligible for solar energy allotment.
The DeKalb County Board will take up the measures in a vote at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Legislative Center, 200 N. Main St. in Sycamore.
The three solar energy proposals include: a 3,700-acre project called Owens Creek and a 1,800-acre project called Red Maple, both by Leeward; and a 643-acre project from Samsung called DK Solar. The proposals are slated for development in the southern portion of the county.
Two longtime farmers in DeKalb County, Walter and former DeKalb County Board member Tracy Jones, own a portion of land slated for the two Leeward projects. Walter’s family owns about 450 acres of the land planned for the Red Maple project in townships near the southern end of DeKalb, while Jones’ family is putting forth about 1,150 acres forward just north of Clare for the Owens Creek project.
Emphasizing his solar energy pursuits are unaffiliated with Whiskey Acres Distilling Company, Walter said that he understands people may be concerned about a lack of farmable land if solar panels start cropping up everywhere.
He said farmland preservation “is near and dear to my heart” and that’s why this project makes sense.
Under the 2018 Pollinator Friendly Solar Site Act, solar farmers in Illinois can establish a vegetation management plan for land used primarily for solar panels. It’s another way for farmers to rejuvenate land beyond seasonal crop rotation, Walter said.
Under his contract with Leeward, Walter would lease his land for 35 years. Solar panels would be installed according to county ordinances and native prairie grasses and pollinator plants would be planted around the panels. After the contract is up, Leeward would front the cost to remove the panels, and the decades-old native grasses would leave the land “better than I found it,” Walter said.
“It’s very similar to conservation reserve programs,” Walter said. “It’s creating conservation, resting land, creating wildlife and pollinator specific habitat, and during that time, we’re able to much more environmentally, sustainably produce electricity.”
Both Walter and Jones grow primarily soybeans and corn on their land. Jones, a fourth generation farmer who also operates a livestock cattle production, said he and his family “thought long and hard about this before we jumped into it.”
“The great thing is, we can reap some of the financial rewards now because it pays obviously better than farming does,” Jones said. “It doesn’t have the ups and downs with markets, which are tied to political whims and everything else. Right now we’ve got runaway inflation, fertilizer prices have more than doubled.”
Echoing Walter, Jones said Leeward representatives “have gone above and beyond” to ensure a smooth transition of solar panel installation among DeKalb County neighbors.
“I think their concerns are overblown,” Jones said of the opponents. “Four generations of my family have accumulated this ground. I think it’s our right to do. We’re doing a solar farm that is approved use under county code.”
Jones and Walter also touted the promise of increased property tax revenue once the solar farms are up and running. According to an economic impact study, projected tax revenue for the Owens Creek solar project after 30 years is $76.5 million. For Red Maple, it’s $49.4 million, for a combined total of $126 million, or $6.3M annually with the Leeward projects.
If approved, the Samsung solar plot would be in Milan Township between McGirr Road to the north, Haumesser Road to the east, Hermann Road to the south and Wilrett Road to the west, according to county documents. The 500-megawatt Owens Creek solar farm would be located in Mayfield and South Grove townships, west of Glidden Road, south of Base Line Road and north of Illinois Route 64. The Red Maple would be set up in Afton and Pierce townships, south of Gurler Road and north of Perry Road.
The Samsung development would need to be completed by June 30, 2023, and the Leeward projects within 36 months of approval, according to county documents.
Walter said despite some neighborly opposition, he “thinks this is a great idea.”
“I empathize with people that say ‘I don’t want to live next to it.’ Frankly, I’m sitting here looking out my window and I have a giant data center that’s going up next door,” Walter said, referring to the incoming Facebook DeKalb Data Center.
“I also realize I have to look beyond my own window and realize what is good for the rest of the area and society at large,” Walter said. “Is the price to pay of my looking at something greater than the good that the rest of society is going to gain? I look at this and say it’s a small burden.”