PAXTON – The Ford County Board’s zoning committee hopes that one more meeting will be all it takes to wrap up its discussions about proposed revisions to the county’s ordinance regulating wind farms.
During a May 10 meeting, the five-member committee made progress in finalizing changes to the decommissioning requirements for wind farms. Meanwhile, further discussion about minimum setbacks, maximum turbine height and noise limits are expected to occur at the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 22, in the board room in the basement of the county jail in Paxton.
Committee Chairman Dave Hastings of Paxton said he hoped all of the proposed changes could be finalized at that meeting, allowing a proposed draft of the revised ordinance to advance to the county’s zoning board and planning commission for their consideration. Once those two panels sign off on the document, the zoning committee and full county board would then need to approve it.
Erin Baker, representing Apex Clean Energy, told the committee last week that she recognizes the county’s “desire to tighten up some of the restrictions,” but she asked that the committee also consider the possibility that if the rules are made too restrictive, it could make a wind farm not economically feasible to build.
“We’re willing to compromise in a big way to meet the needs of the board members, the county, but we can just only do so much on so many different fronts,” said Baker, whose firm has already been issued a special-use permit to build the Ford Ridge Wind Farm near Sibley but wants to expand the project in the future.
James Madson, representing Pattern Energy Group, concurred with Baker’s comments.
Also present was Mark Moyer, a consultant with Orion Renewable Energy Group, based in Galesburg, which is looking to put up a wind farm in the Elliott area. Moyer made no comments.
Meanwhile, wind-farm opponent Ted Hartke urged the board to adopt more restrictive setbacks – the minimum distance turbines must be from structures, property lines and public roads.
Hartke said the setbacks from property lines should align to whatever distance a wind-turbine manufacturer lists for its “hazard evacuation zone.” According to Hartke, some turbine manufacturers state that workers should be no closer than 1,640 feet from a turbine in the event of a fire or other hazard – and that is the minimum distance Hartke would like to see for a property-line setback.
Hartke suggested a half-mile setback from “primary structures,” specifically homes of non-participating property owners – those residents not leasing their land for a wind farm. Hartke noted that Apex Clean Energy uses that same distance for its “good neighbor” agreements.
As discussed at previous meetings, the committee is looking to change the setback from primary structures to either a distance of at least 1,000 feet or 1,300 feet. The committee is also looking at requiring turbines be no closer to adjacent property lines than 1.0 times or 1.5 times a turbine’s tip height.
Some committee members have pushed for a larger setback from primary structures – 1,800 feet at minimum. Hartke, however, said that distance is still too small.
“That’s only 135 feet further than the turbine that’s closest to my house, and 135 feet would not change the situation with my family at my house that’s abandoned,” said Hartke, who said he abandoned his home in Vermilion County due to the proximity of a wind turbine to his home, which caused noise issues. “So this talk about 1,800 feet is definitely not protective.”
Hartke also cautioned the committee not to give wind-farm companies a break by allowing them to deduct the salvage value from the financial security they would need to provide the county up-front prior to construction of a wind farm. Hartke noted that salvage value fluctuates from year to year, while the cost to remove turbines goes up every year, with it currently costing anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000 per turbine.
In previous meetings, the committee discussed the idea of no longer allowing a wind-farm operator to deduct salvage value from the financial assurance it provides. However, County Board Chairman Randy Berger of Gibson City said last week he would not mind factoring in scrap value in the financial security as long as “they have some kind of certified bid at the time of the project.”
“The rest of it would be in some kind of security, either a bond or letter of credit or some kind of combination (of the two), to cover what would be left,” Berger said.
Some committee members also seemed willing to relax their stance on a previously introduced proposal to require wind-farm operators to provide at least half of their financial security in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit, rather than a bond. Committee members have said a letter of credit would be more secure and accessible to the county than a bond would be. However, Hastings said Thursday that Baker recently expressed concerns about her firm’s ability to provide a letter of credit. Hastings said that Baker, however, indicated her firm could provide a bond that “becomes available within a pretty short time.”
“It would be a bond that would meet the needs of the county being able to draw upon it in a very narrow window of time, a matter of days,” Baker said. “For (Apex), letters of credit are difficult for us to put up. For us, a bond where we can make it look like a letter of credit for your access would be much more feasible for us.”
Hartke then told Baker: “I think that sounds crazy.”
Hastings then admitted that he, too, did not understand exactly what Baker was proposing. Hastings told Baker he would like more information, and Baker said she would talk to her “finance team” to get the details.
“At this point, we’re still looking for a letter of credit until we can be convinced otherwise,” Hastings told Hartke.
“I would like to see a copy of that bond or know who’s an issuer of that bond,” Hastings told Baker. “I would like to see the wording that makes that bond available as a cash basis.”
The committee, meanwhile, seemed to come to agreement on other aspects of decommissioning – specifically, the time that wind-farm operators would be given to remove an entire wind farm or portions of a wind farm when turbines are no longer in use.
The committee ultimately agreed that a wind-farm operator would need to remove any portion of a wind farm that is no longer active for a period of 12 consecutive months.
“If you’ve got two of them sitting there for over a year, they either need to be repaired or removed,” said county board member Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton. “Each individual turbine should not be inactive for more than a year. If it is, there’s something really wrong.”
Under the committee’s proposal, if a wind farm or a portion of a wind farm is found to be inactive for more than a year, the county would give the wind-farm operator up to one year to decommission the affected portion of the project. However, in the event that a wind-farm operator intends to recommission an inactive turbine or turbines but needs more time to do so, the operator could petition the county board for an extension.
Meanwhile, county board member Jason Johnson of rural Paxton asked who would be responsible for monitoring which turbines are inactive – and for how long any are inactive.
“How do you track that?” Johnson asked.
Zoning enforcement officer Matt Rock asked Baker and Madson if their companies could provide a “readout” showing the activity of each turbine in their respective wind farms.
“Yeah, they take data every three seconds,” Madson said, noting his company would have no problem producing a quarterly report for the county that would show how many hours each turbine operated in that period. Madson said the document is called an “availability report,” a standard term in the industry.
Baker and Moyer said they, too, could provide an availability report as requested by the county.
Hartke then asked what the county could do to prevent a wind-farm operator from turning on a “clunker” turbine just one day per month in order to keep it from having to be torn down at the operator’s expense.
“I don’t really care as long as we’re getting our tax money,” committee member Gene May of rural Paxton responded.
Added McQuinn: “We’re trying to look at it like, ‘We don’t want an eyesore.’ … As long as it’s turning now and then, I guess it’s … like he said, we’re getting the taxes off of it.
“But once it just sits there forever and never moves and you can tell it’s not going to move and 12 months goes by, well, we would either need an answer about why it’s not being fixed or how soon will it be taken down.”
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