The seeds to regulate construction of wind turbines have been planted in McDonough County now for a number of years, but recent legislation – sponsored by Macomb’s district senator – proposes a change of regulatory authority from local entities to the state.
More specifically, it moves that authority to Illinois’ Department of Agriculture, amending the Counties Code and deleting language enabling a county to set standards for wind farms and electric-generating turbines.
It’s an action that, if ever fully approved, McDonough County Engineer Tom Hickman said would leave local entities with a lot to lose.
“It would take money from locals. And they could come in and destroy the roads; there wouldn’t be any contractual (agreement with turbine operators),” he said. “… There’s wind farms all over the state. They have an agreement with these wind farm companies to, No. 1, determine which roads are going to be used and to replace them to the condition they were prior to construction.”
Hickman spoke of starting, but not completing a “road agreement” for a project that first garnered attention in McDonough County several years ago.
The Cardinal Point Wind Energy Project, taken over by Element Power from EcoEnergy in 2010, was proposed to establish more than 100 turbines on thousands of acres – the project’s manager said in May 2012 24,000 acres were committed, and the company needed 16,400 to accommodate 116 turbines.
The project had been lauded for the jobs it could bring to the area, meetings were held with the public and stakeholders, and it was estimated it could make $1.8 million in local property tax payments with more than $1 million going to the West Prairie School District.
County officials had established guidelines for wind operations prior to Element Power’s formal project application in early 2011. Though the project has never broken ground, Element Power also maintains office space in Macomb for when its officials are in town.
However, it’s inconsistency in regulations from county to county that partly inspired Senate Bill 3263, according state Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, who introduced the legislation in late February.
The senator said he understands the controversy in his legislation, but pointed to conflicts that have risen in areas where wind projects were proposed in “unincorporated” areas or when its impact area spread over two counties with completely different standards.
“The further we got into it, we found more how counties have developed their ordinances,” Sullivan said. “We’ve seen there’s quite a variance from county to county. Some have done a good job and others have not been as thorough as they could’ve been.”
Wind is an issue Sullivan said he’s worked with aspects of for three or four years, and that he had seen an interest in having a statewide standard, particularly for decommissioning wind turbines.
The legislation itself, Senate Bill 3263, which is currently assigned to lawmakers in the energy committee, would require commercial wind energy operations on land owned by another entity to enter into an agricultural impact mitigation agreement with the state’s Department of Agriculture.
Also required would be the filing of a deconstruction plan that’s been prepared by an independent third party. For many of the more complicated steps the process takes, Sullivan said it comes down to resources, which he added some counties have better access to than others.
“I think everybody understands that at some point, we don’t know when, that a wind turbine is going to need to be taken down,” he said.
But the amount of equipment it takes to build wind turbines often destroys roads, according to Hickman, and Sullivan’s bill doesn’t include agreements for companies to repair them.
In its application, the Element Power project encompassed a turbine area in Sciota Township, two miles into Blandinsville Township and even a section of Warren County.
If the project continues, trucks carrying the necessary, and very likely heavy, equipment to construct tall turbines would roll through rural McDonough County. The infrastructure might crack and bridges might not be equipped to handle the weight.
“Usually the roads are not wide enough, the turning radii may not be big enough,” Hickman said. “We have a lot of sealcoat roads and those don’t have a very big base … it would require more extensive repair.”
With a road agreement, the engineer said officials would “have money set aside, a certain amount, or a certain type of repair and cost set out for each particular road, depending on type of road.”
Hickman said he’d a brief meeting with Sullivan earlier this week to talk over those concerns – that the senator’s proposal didn’t include road provisions.
“I’m very much aware of how much of an impact this utility could have on roads,” Sullivan said, admitting SB 3263 was somewhat broadly written, “and that would be part of the legislative project.”
Not limiting growth
Sullivan has been widely quoted statewide in recent weeks as to counties’ objection to the senate bill.
Hickman said his meeting with Sullivan went well, and that he gleaned the senator didn’t expect the bill to progress too far, adding it seemed more an opportunity to raise concerns about consistency on one side of the issue rather than exclusively to instigate the law.
“I think he said they brought it up to try and get talk going on some standards,” Hickman said.
Additionally, county governments, Sullivan said, haven’t been the only objectors to SB 3263. Energy companies too, he said, see a downside to having to work through state regulations rather than approaching individual communities.
Though wind farms are often controversial, the Rushville Democrat said the bill’s purpose wasn’t solely to implement “tighter controls” or put the state’s growth in renewable energy in jeopardy.
“I think they bring a lot of good, as far as renewable energy,” Sullivan said, “that needs to be apart of our portfolio. My intent was not to limit.”