Solar farm in Harvard doubles as a pollinator-friendly habitat

Solar farm plants native plant seeds in attempt to revive prairie lands

Nexamp's solar farm near Harvard, in 2023.

The sound of crickets chirping drowned out the slight hum of the solar panels at a solar farm outside Harvard.

Butterflies and bees fly above the native plants, including clovers, Indian grass and coneflowers. About 7 feet off the ground, 7,000 solar panel modules harvest sunlight for electricity.

The effort by Nexamp Solar, which has been operating the community solar farm since 2021, is how a solar farm can be a habitat for native wildlife in northern Illinois.

A community solar farm means anyone – including households and commercial businesses – within the range of the farm can sign up for its solar services, Nexamp Solar Field Operations Manager Zach Trost said.

“We have much better runoff solutions than agriculture does.”

—  Tye Keppler, Nexamp project manager

The farm generates 2 megawatts, which can supply around 250 to 300 customers, ComEd spokesman David O’Dowd said.

“Think of about two million light bulbs being powered at once,” Trost said.

It is one of more than 20 solar farms in northern Illinois operated by Nexamp.

McHenry County could see seven new solar farms, all proposed by various companies this year. Many will most likely be approved due to Illinois legislation that limits county regulation and prohibits counties from banning or suspending solar farms.

In meetings over the last several months, County Board members expressed concerns that solar farms could create soil erosion and runoff problems.

The Suyra Powered LLC solar farm proposed for Crystal Lake narrowly passed the McHenry County Board last month. Board member John Reinert, R-Crystal Lake, voted against the solar farm because of flooding concerns since it would be located in a watershed.

Other solar farms proposed include SolarStone in Harvard; Wildcat in Woodstock; another Surya Powered in Hebron; and Solar 9000 in HuntleyMarengo and Union.

Tye Keppler, a project manager with Nexamp, said the land being leased to them by farmers has degraded soil conditions. For the next 20 years, the solar farm will be on land dedicated to growing native plants and therefore improving the soil quality.

“People don’t have a full understanding of what goes on here,” Keppler said.

Once the lease is up, Nexamp plans to convert the land back to agricultural uses for the farmers who own the land, Trost said.

Keppler said they worked with the McHenry County Conservation District to plant the native plant seed mixture. It takes about three years for the plants to fully develop, and their roots can absorb excess storm water.

“We have much better runoff solutions than agriculture does,” he said.

He advised future solar farm companies to work with the county to create pollinator-friendly farms.

Illinois has been experiencing a significant decrease in prairie land due to prairies being converted to agriculture. Now the state has less than 2,300 acres of “high quality prairie,” according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Keppler said all Nexamp solar farms are pollinator friendly. It’s his goal to repurpose the land to gain back prairies in the state.

“Now we’re getting that back,” Keppler said.