Transmission lines under construction are latest concern
On July 26, 2007, when the Illinois General Assembly joined 23 other states in passing renewable energy standards, lawmakers may as well have fired a starter pistol.
The new standards, which require more wind-generated electricity, set off a scramble to find the most blustery ridges and the most power-hungry electricity markets in the state to blanket them with windmills.
The surge has created a windfall for areas geographically positioned to convert wind into electricity. Hundreds of 250-foot tall towers with blades that span the length of a football field now dot the countryside.
Southeastern Lee County happens to be one of those spots, and the rush to build has transformed the county from one with no commercial wind turbines four years ago, to one with more windmills than any other county in the state – and more developers are expressing interest.
The rapid development is generating big financial returns for taxing districts and landowners who lease the space, but it is dividing residents literally along fence lines, as developers carve up properties and dangle power lines along government easements with marginal oversight.
Bruce and Joyce Papiech live in Sublette, and by this time next year, they will be contending for the chance to lay claim as largest wind farm developers in the state. The couple will have built 205 megawatts worth of wind turbines in Lee and LaSalle counties, enough electricity to power about 50,000 homes.
The Papieches’ competition will be right next door at the border of Lee and Bureau counties.
The Midwest Wind Energy Group already has broken ground on high-voltage transmission lines as part of its 200-megawatt Big Sky Wind project north of Ohio.
Big Sky is the first in the county to build private transmission lines, which has caused something of a problem for officials who want to retain some control over where wind farm operators can dangle the wires, but don’t want to make the rules so restrictive as to scare away future developers, said William O’Keefe, chairman of Lee County’s Regional Planning Commission.
The Papieches also obtained zoning approval from the County Board in January for the construction of a 100-room hotel and conference center based on wind energy.
Manufacturers advertise a turbine’s name-plate capacity, which represents the maximum amount of electricity a turbine can produce when the blades are whirring at full speed.
Typical commercial wind turbines don’t produce electricity at name-plate capacity for the same reason cautious drivers don’t floor it every time they pull away from a traffic light – it’s hard on expensive equipment, Shank said.
Although electricity generation on wind farms is subject to the vagaries of weather, their property tax production isn’t.
In Illinois, county assessors base a wind farm’s property taxes on the development’s total name-plate capacity. In other words, there’s no relationship between electricity production and property taxes, said Wendy Ryerson, supervisor of assessments in Lee County.
Ryerson said the county taxes wind farms at about $8,500 per year for every megawatt of name-plate capacity.
In 2004, the Mendota Hills project, the county’s first wind farm, began operating near Paw Paw. Since then, wind farm tax receipts have come to about $320,000 per year with a running total of about $1 million, Ryerson said.
With all of the projects planned and under way, that figure will likely be about eight times as much by this time next year.
This summer, FPC Services will receive a partial tax bill for a yet-undetermined amount, its first in Lee County, for Phase I of the GSG projects east of Sublette, Ryerson said.
During 2008, the 41-megawatt phase I of GSG will add another $344,000 to the local tax base. (GSG has since sold the Brooklyn Township and LaSalle County portion of Phase I to investment firm Babcock and Brown.)
Bruce Papiech, co-owner of GSG, said phase II, with a 122.5-megawatt name-plate capacity, should be complete by the end of this year. That means another $1 million in local tax receipts.
Throw the Big Sky project into the mix, and there is another 104 megawatts and $880,000 in annual tax receipts.
Taken together, tax money from the county’s wind farms will total somewhere in the range of $2.4 million per year once all the planned projects are fully constructed. That money will be divvied up in the same way as property taxes for a nearby home or business.
Schools, county and city governments, fire departments – any jurisdiction that receives a cut of property taxes – will get a cash boost from the wind farms.
On a still day, when there’s no wind to power a blade, the turbines are generating money, but they’re also whipping up the ire of some residents who see the development as a blight on the farming landscape. They also question the effects of long-term exposure to powerful magnetic fields surrounding turbines and how the blades might impact local bird life.
East Grove Township resident Sam Taormina opposes the transmission lines that will connect the Big Sky project between Sublette and Ohio with the Duke Energy peaker plant outside Dixon.
The high-voltage transmission lines are going in across the street from Taormina’s Route 26 home, and he’s concerned the lines will disturb an unprotected wetland, not to mention disrupt the view.
Doug Kreiser, a resident of Marion Township, has spent the past four months campaigning for tighter county regulation of transmission lines. Big Sky gave him a choice: Be compensated for allowing the wires close to his house or let them dangle over the far edge of his property while his neighbor reaps the right-of-way payments.
Scores more have attended County Board meetings, sat through zoning hearings and petitioned committees to stop wind farm development in one form or another.
Those fortunate enough to own land where the wind blows stand to make some passive income for allowing developers access to their property.
Contracts between wind farm operators and land owners are private agreements, but Ryerson said she believes them to be around $5,000 per year for a turbine. Contracts depend on the number of turbines, the potential for wind generation and sometimes how shrewd a bargainer the landowner is, said Chris Henkel, zoning officer for Lee County.
“There are a lot of arguments being made on both sides of the issue,” Ryerson said.
“It depends on which side of the fence you’re on, literally,” Henkel said. “People are looking at the property across the street and seeing their neighbor making all this money.”
Shank, however, believes the technology has come too far and wind-electricity gained too much momentum for much to stop it.
Wind energy “has really got a head of steam up, and it’s coming on big time,” Shank said. “We’re going to be seeing thousands of these things.”
Supply and demand
By 2025, Illinois has mandated that 25 percent of all electricity consumed in the state be generated by renewable resource, and 75 percent of that must come from wind, Shank said.
That means that nine gigawatts of electricity must come from wind power by 2025, Shank said. By comparison, at the end of 2006, Illinois was generating 100 megawatts.
Despite being the 25th largest state by land area and the fifth largest by population, Illinois ranks behind only California and Texas in wind-electricity generation, Shank said.
Driving the building boom in Illinois is the combination of a robust transmission grid already in place, high demand and a few spots prone to a steady breeze, Shank said.
Thinking of getting into the game? Think again. Most turbines are bought out at least three years down the road, and some of the world’s largest developers, such as the Spanish company Iberdrola, own wind farms in nearly 100 different countries.
A really big turbine
Eve, the Papieches’ proposed flagship turbine, has a maximum generating capacity of 2.5 megawatts. In other words, when spinning at full speed, Eve will produce roughly the same amount of energy as 17 V-6 pickup engines roaring at full throttle.
Typical commercial-scale wind turbines come with a name-plate between 1.5 and 2 megawatts, which is the equivalent of 10 revved-up pickup truck engines – without, of course, any air pollution.
Turbine production depends on many factors. Average wind speed, turbine efficiency and proximity to other turbines all can diminish overall output.
Keith Shank, a natural resources manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says most turbines run anywhere between 30 percent and 75 percent efficiency, as long as winds are blowing at 50 mph – much more likely when the tip of a commercial turbine’s blade can reach as high as 400 feet off the ground.
By Sam Smith
17 February 2008
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