Although Horizon Wind Energy jumped a big hurdle Tuesday by receiving a conditional-use permit from the Logan County Board, more obstacles still line the path to the start of construction on the Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Logan and Tazewell counties.
“Frankly, we can’t establish a start date,” project manager Bill Whitlock said Wednesday afternoon. “The threat from the objectors has created too much uncertainty.”
Ninety days of uncertainty, as it turns out. That’s based on Rockford attorney Rick Porter’s threat to appeal the permit’s legality if no property value guarantee is provided to his clients, members of Union Ridge Wind.
Members of the Logan County Board approved the project Tuesday without the guarantee.
If Porter does file an appeal within a 90-day deadline, the matter will be argued in circuit court.
“It could take them some time,” said Whitlock. “I don’t know how long.”
The process in Tazewell County doesn’t appear to be any easier.
Assistant Tazewell County state’s attorney Mike Holly said he is concerned with several parts of a decommissioning plan, which addresses what will happen to 38 wind towers in that county if Horizon ever goes bankrupt, sells the wind farm or abandons it.
Holly said the current plan allows Horizon to transfer its agreement or obligations with the county to another company if it chooses. That, Holly said, would leave the county in a partnership with a company it would know nothing about.
Despite the fact Tazewell and Logan county boards have already issued conditional-use permits, the decommissioning plan is just one item that needs to be ironed out before building permits are issued. Whitlock said a road agreement in Tazewell County also needs to be established.
Logan County engineer Brett Aukamp spent time throughout the hearing process developing a road and maintenance agreement with Horizon, which was approved unanimously by the board. According to board chairman Dick Logan, a decommissioning plan has also been established. Whitlock said the decommissioning plan is currently being reviewed.
“(In Tazewell County), they will vote for decommissioning on July 30,” he said.
Whitlock said other items need to be addressed, as well, including obtaining a Federal Aviation Administration permit for each turbine.
“The next step is to satisfy conditions within those permits,” said Whitlock. “We haven’t seen a final list of all of those conditions, but hopefully, it’s all pretty standard.”
After all the standards are met, Whitlock hopes to add Rail Splitter to its list of wind farms already operating in the area, including Twin Groves in McLean County.
“So far, so good,” Whitlock said of the Twin Groves project. “The production levels are about what we expected.”
Since the McLean County project is the first wind farm to be up and running in central Illinois, it has served as a model on how to establish better production with the Rail Splitter project.
“Twin Groves is much more dense … spaced closer together,” said Whitlock. “The Rail Splitter will be spread out further. Other than that, they’re largely the same.”
Whitlock said spreading out the turbines makes them much more efficient.
Horizon’s intent, once all the processes are complete, is to begin construction in the northwest section of the Rail Splitter Wind Farm in Tazewell County and work its way south to northern Logan County.
Ironically, due to the lengthy hearings in Logan County, it appeared that the process was holding up the Tazewell portion of the project. Now, there’s no way to tell which county will have building permits in place first.
When Horizon receives the green light for construction, the company will begin working on each county’s infrastructure.
“There will be a lot of public road upgrades,” said Whitlock. “We’ll be strengthening the roads, then widening them to put in the private access roads.”
Each turbine will have a private access roads cutting through the fields leading back to the turbine.
Following the road upgrades, Horizon will begin excavating foundations placing cages to lay the cement, which will act as the foundation. The cement will need to cure before placing any structures on top of the foundations.
Large cranes will then be placed strategically around the turbine areas, so they can simply turn to place structures on the foundation without constantly having to maneuver the crane to different locations.
A lot of work will also begin taking place on the turbine substations. Underground cables and overhead transmission lines will need to be established.
“Typically, the entire process takes between 9-12 months,” said Whitlock.
The building process for Rail Splitter will be the same as what took place in Twin Groves, but Whitlock couldn’t agree about the permit process being just as easy as the previous facility.
“We had two objectors at Twin Groves … that’s really a very small percentage,” he said. “The permitting process (for this project) was much more difficult. Twin Groves’ ZBA hearings took a night-and-a-half, nowhere near as contentious.
“There was no opposition represented by legal council that mounted such a vigorous objection.”
Whitlock was somewhat surprised to see the opposition that came forward. He said residents who eventually formed Union Ridge Wind attended an open house hosted by Horizon in Emden long before the permit process began.
“We did not have an idea they were this concerned,” said Whitlock. “We would have made stronger efforts.
“Once they retained an attorney, it changed the rules of the game.”
When Porter was hired, Whitlock was no longer allowed to speak directly to URW members to work out any possible solutions.
Although Porter said he would advise his clients against signing a neighbor agreement, he said this agreement will still be available to any opposition members who want to sign it.
The neighbor agreement gives payments of $1,000 a year with annual increases, amounting to slightly over $40,000 for the life of the agreement.
By Joshua Niziolkiewicz
17 July 2008
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