A bill that would allow for the creation of a special local government district that could build and operate renewable energy facilities, including wind turbines, and sell that electricity has been signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.
The legislation (HB 1487) was promoted by officials in Champaign County and sponsored in the Legislature by Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, and Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign.
It allows for local citizens to petition for the establishment of a renewable energy production district. After holding required public hearings on the proposed district, the local court would certify a referendum within the boundaries of the district. If approved by a majority of those voting, the production would be formed and governed by a five-member board that would serve without compensation. The board would be able to construct, operate and maintain renewable energy facilities, or contract with private or public entities to do the same. It then would be allowed to sell the renewable energy with all of the proceeds going back to the county government.
“Locally generated power has the potential to create jobs, hold down cost for consumers and keep dollars generated by the facility within the community,” Hays said in a statement released Monday.
“My hope is twofold,” said Frerichs. “One is that we can increase the amount of clean energy on our grid and, two, that we keep some more of that money we’re spending on electricity here locally.
“This bill has some great potential to do those two things.”
The idea for the renewable energy production district originated with Jim Rusk, the Rantoul Township supervisor, and George Burnison, the late Ludlow Township supervisor, in late 2008.
“We saw an article in a national township association magazine that said there was something like $65 billion appropriated to the Department of Energy for renewable energy projects, windmills mostly, and that they were already talking about the possibility of windmills for Champaign County,” Rusk said. “George said, Wouldn’t it be something if we could create our own district, own the windmills and take all that money for our townships or our county?
“That’s where the concept came from. George and I literally worked out the concept on a napkin.”
They took the idea to former Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville. Black sponsored the bill and got it through the House in March 2009, but it stalled that spring in the Senate, primarily because of opposition from Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison.
“We wanted to collect the energy, sell the energy and then collect the money and give it back to people so we could lower property taxes,” Rusk said. “It’s the first time since the start of townships that instead of taxing somebody, what you’re doing is creating money for your taxing district and then dropping their tax rate.
“When we pitched it to Bill he just said, ‘Give me that again. We’re going to create money and give it back to the taxpayers?'”
This year, though, the legislation cleared the House 112-0 and the Senate 57-0.
“I’ve really got to give Mike Frerichs a lot of credit for this thing, and Chad Hays,” Rusk said. “They understood what it could do for the county. They believed in the concept of it and really got it through the House and Senate.
“I never realized how hard it is to get something done over there. It’s a monumental effort to get something passed.”
He said there’s a group already studying the potential for a renewable energy district in Champaign County.
“It’s a matter of how many towers you want to build to see how much revenue you can generate,” Rusk said. “If you put up 200 towers, just do the math yourself and you can see what you could create for the county. And hopefully the county would do the right thing and lower their taxes.”
The county government probably would have to issues bonds to finance the renewable energy projects, Rusk said. But grant money also would be available for construction, he added.
“You could actually do two things with this: drop taxes and set priorities for things you do need at the county,” he said. “It would allow you the income to do things you want to. It’s important because we’re at a time when all governments are stretched for money.”
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