Multiple solar farm companies have presented proposals to build facilities across McHenry County this year.
A state law that took effect in January limits a county’s ability to regulate new commercial wind and solar facilities. It also prohibits counties from banning or suspending wind and solar farms.
The McHenry County Board has had meetings over the past couple of months to discuss its limited options. Concerns of proposed locations, runoff and flooding are difficult to address without working against Illinois law.
We are not powerless.”— McHenry County Board member Pamela Althoff
“It’s the biggest issue before us right now,” County Board member Gloria Van Hof said.
The board narrowly approved the Suyra Powered LLC solar farm during a meeting Tuesday night in a 9-7 vote. It is proposed to be more than 20 acres and installed at Ridgefield Road in Crystal Lake. It would be a community solar farm, which means residents could subscribe to their services instead of basic electricity.
The proposed farm would power more than 600 homes, Tej Patel of Suyra Powered said in a June planning and zoning meeting.
The farm also is in the Crystal Lake watershed. Residents and board members were concerned with flooding and runoff issues. Patel said that the company would work with Crystal Lake stormwater and watershed management plans.
“I can’t support this knowing that everyone in Crystal Lake is against it being in the watershed,” County Board member John Reinert said last week.
He voted against the solar farm.
Reinert said that he worries the installation of the solar panels could affect water regeneration for Crystal Lake.
Crystal Lake resident Ed Gogol, who spoke at last week’s meeting, said that he supports the Suyra solar farm, noting that the panels actually should provide habitat for wildlife and not create any runoff.
As long as the solar farm proposals follow the county’s planning and zoning requirements, the board cannot object to it because of state law. Any land that is currently zoned for industrial or agricultural purposes automatically allows solar farms now, County Board member Joe Gottemoller said.
“It’s really a shame because we actually had a great outline as to how we regulated and made sure certain neighbors got protected and those things,” Gottemoller said. “And all of that got gutted by Springfield.”
Many residents’ concerns seem to be a “not in my backyard” problem, Van Hof said.
“I personally don’t think they should be in residential areas so close to other homes,” Van Hof said.
Van Hof said that the board’s strategy is to approve the current solar farms and wait for a change in state law that might give county officials more control later.
Pamela Althoff, leader of the Law and Government Committee, said she will be having conference calls with state lawmakers soon. She plans to propose an amendment that would allow county boards to have more authority after a county has a certain number of solar farm acres. Right now, McHenry County has more than 3,000 square feet assigned to solar farms.
“We are not powerless,” Althoff said in a June board meeting.
If board members vote against any solar farms, the state could take the county to court, Gottemoller said.
“How do you tell a County Board member, ‘No, we’d rather have you get sued’? It’s a losing battle,” he said.
Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law in 2021 that pushes the state to have 100% clean energy by 2050. The law, called the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, laid out a path to have 40% renewable energy by 2030 and 50% by 2040.
Van Hof, who voted in favor of the Surya solar farm Tuesday, said that she supports solar farms and reducing emissions, but she wants to make sure that the farms are done right and in the proper areas.
Kellie Wegener, who also voted for the solar farm, said that reducing emissions will help everyone, including farmers, in the future.
“We can’t put our head in the sand,” Wegener said. “The effects of climate change and the increase of temperature is not going away.”
County Board member Carolyn Campbell also favored solar farms, saying it is a necessity for the future.
“We have to find ways to move forward with getting us off of fossil fuels so we can make sure we protect this planet for future generations,” Campbell said. “And I’m not talking about great-grandchildren, I’m talking about my children.”
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the county board voted to approve the Suyra Powered LLC solar farm during a meeting Tuesday night.