Community Voices: Solar farm program needed to educate local governments, residents

Jim Wise

It’s spring, and I’m enjoying the flowers that spring brings – except for those darn dandelions. I know of their importance to pollinators, and they do look pretty when they flower, their bright yellow petals lying in the grass.

But it gets annoying when they turn to seed, grow to a towering height and look like wind turbines that populate the entire landscape of my yard. That’s when I start thinking I should have gotten control of them before they got out of control.

I’m starting to have those same thoughts about these solar farms that are popping up everywhere.

Across Illinois, from bustling cities to serene townships and counties, we find ourselves in a shared predicament. We’re all grappling with the question of what we can do about solar farms’ review, approval and permitting process, especially since the state has curtailed our authority to give a definitive yes or no.

Before we dive into potential solutions, let’s trace our steps to understand how we reached this juncture.

Let me make my position clear: I am a staunch advocate of solar energy, and I firmly believe in the rights of property owners. However, I also acknowledge the government’s crucial role in making decisions that serve the collective good. This responsibility, I believe, should be exercised with a balanced approach, without overstepping its bounds.

The current situation with the proliferation of solar farms in our communities seems to be testing this delicate balance.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2021 opened the door to building the state’s clean-energy generation capacity. Currently, 11% of all energy generated in this state is classified as clean energy. To reach the goal of 40% by 2030, we will need to quadruple the electricity-generating capacity of solar and wind farms. That’s a lot of solar farms that will need to be built in the next six years.

The Illinois Power Agency, created from CEJA legislation, manages the two solar energy programs, Illinois Shines and Illinois Solar For All, that oversee solar farm developments. I spoke with representatives at the IPA who told me that the programs are growing and working to ensure that the solar energy programs provide as much benefit as possible. I agree that these programs are growing and that the IPA does a great job of managing the application and selection process for those who will build these solar farms. However, it is not the IPA that draws the greater scrutiny. It is the builders of these solar farms that should be carefully watched.

Local jobs are one benefit that is supposed to be created by solar farm developments. But maybe not jobs for your local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 364 member.

I spoke with a person with IBEW 364 and asked whether local solar farm projects were using local skilled labor. I was told it was hit and miss – some are and some aren’t. But while sitting in on several solar farm presentations and listening to the business reps sent out from the solar farm developers’ corporate offices, I, along with many others, are drawn to the scripted delivery of the benefits that communities and others will receive if we agree to let them build their solar farms.

After hearing the same repeated script several times, I soon realized that these speakers reminded me of that scene in “Odessey,” where a siren sang her songs of wonderment and wealth to those who would listen. In that movie, it was the listener who, swayed by the siren’s songs, would eventually meet an unpleasant ending.

In speaking with several members of the Whiteside County Board, I was told they are becoming hesitant to approve solar farm projects because they are obtaining the one treasure we possess in Whiteside County: our farmland. We do not have oil, gas, silver, gold or precious metals. We do have some of the most prime farmland in the world right here in Whiteside County, and we are losing 20 to 40 acres at a time to solar farms.

So, how do you get control of this situation? A member of the Lee County Board told me that we need an education program for the local governments and the public to understand the true influence of solar farms. A member of the Whiteside County Board told me that the board spent months getting educated on wind turbines and their effect on our quality of life, and that they should do it again with solar farms. I applaud both ideas. To do both, we should engage the Blackhawk Hills Regional Council to study solar farms’ influence on our environment, the effect of the loss of farmland and the true local economic benefits of solar farm projects.

We also should follow the lead of Grundy County and create a list of conditions that solar farm developers must agree upon to receive their construction permits. We should do this across all local government levels, including municipal, township and county. Yes, townships should be included in this process, too.

The solar farm to be built at Route 40 and Science Ridge Road most likely will be using township roads to bring in construction equipment to build the solar farm. No conditions on that permit require that the township be compensated for any damage that may occur on Science Ridge Road during the solar farm’s construction. Township residents paid for that road with their property taxes and will pay to repair it once that solar farm has been built, unless conditions on the permit require that the solar farm developer pay for the damage caused.

We must take immediate steps to educate ourselves on how to best manage the solar farm issue, ensure that we maximize the benefits of solar farm projects in our area and take control of this issue. If we don’t, before you know it, solar farms will be popping up everywhere, just like those darn dandelions do.

Jim Wise is a Sterling alderman.

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