VALMEYER • Joe Koppeis is no stranger to bringing unique business concepts to the limestone bluffs that line the eastern edge of the Mississippi River flood plain, just over 20 miles south of St. Louis.
That much is obvious as he leads a tour through the sprawling, cliff-side caverns of Rock City – a former quarry that Koppeis and his company, Admiral Parkway Development, have spent years and $45 million converting into an underground business complex and storage facility. Tenants ranging from the National Archives and Records Administration to Little Caesars occupy hundreds of thousands of square feet within, drawn largely to the compound’s reduced costs of cooling and refrigeration.
For the last decade, though, Koppeis has been looking into another, perhaps complementary, project – a wind farm that would stretch along farmland perched just above the bluffs.
Though still a long way from fruition – or even a concrete application – the prospect of up to about 50 turbines and 200 megawatts has already stoked debate across some of the surrounding farms and growing bedroom communities of Monroe County.
The concept has support from local schools, laborers, and others, but opposition from area residents exists, too – plenty of which was voiced at an Aug. 20 Monroe County Board meeting in Waterloo, where Koppeis provided additional details about the project and fielded questions from county officials and citizens.
While the debate over wind projects is familiar in the Midwest, it’s new to southwest Illinois. Although the region is not known for strong wind resources, the Mississippi Bluffs Wind Project sees a path to viability by taking advantage of improved turbine technology and the area’s available transmission capacity.
Koppeis says the idea originated back in 2007, when he first sought to gauge whether there was enough wind for a single turbine to provide power to the Rock City complex. After initial reviews were promising, Koppeis scaled up studies to determine if the area could support an entire wind farm.
The decade of ensuing data has shown Koppeis and partnering wind energy experts enough to push the concept forward, especially when aided by other factors.
“Due to a combination of wind turbine efficiency improvements, reductions in wind facility construction costs and the increasing demand for renewable energy, low wind speed locations, such as southwest Illinois, are quickly becoming economically viable locations for wind farms,” says an outline of the project from Koppeis’ company, Admiral Parkway, and NorthRenew Energy, a renewable energy developer assisting with the project.
The wind farm has added appeal, Koppeis says, thanks to available capacity on major transmission lines that already exist in the area and help serve coal-fired power plants nearby.
Transmission can require hundreds of thousands of dollars per mile and arduous permitting processes to install, often making it a costly and complicating stumbling block for renewable energy projects. The chance to access existing lines and potentially sidestep those hurdles in Monroe County was too much for project developers to pass up.
“We’ve been really lucky. We’re just trying to use resources that are already there,” said Koppeis, speaking to the importance of transmission access. “If you can’t get it to market, you just can’t do it. So it really is the most important part.”
And with aging coal power plants on either side of the river struggling economically or approaching retirement, Koppeis said he believed that the amount of excess transmission capacity was on the rise, specifically mentioning the Baldwin plant in neighboring Randolph County – one of multiple coal-fired facilities in the region where a large portion of generation has been idled in recent years.
Not only could a wind farm fill a void on the electric grid, but proponents of the project suggest that it could also provide an economic lift in local jobs and tax revenue.
At the recent hearing about the project, which could extend up to 14 miles from Valmeyer toward Fults, Monroe County board members were told that each turbine would generate approximately $40,000 per year in property tax revenue at the county level.
A large chunk of that could go to schools. Kelton Davis, the regional superintendent of schools for Monroe and Randolph counties, wrote a letter to local officials endorsing the concept of a wind farm and said he heard that each turbine would contribute $34,000 annually to education in the county. Multiplied by 50 possible turbines, that could equate to an extra $1.7 million per year.
“Dare I say lifesaver?” said Davis, when asked what the project could mean for schools. He said tax revenue from a commercial source like a wind farm can deliver an impact that residential property taxes alone are not able to replicate, particularly as the county population rises.
“Whatever we can do in the county to maintain the level of education, I’m all for it,” Davis said. “I hope people would keep an open mind and consider all the facts before weighing in.”
Labor leaders in the county have also cheered the project, which could amount to a total private sector investment of $200 million to $250 million. If completed, developers say the project could support 15 to 20 permanent jobs, and perhaps “thousands” of temporary jobs associated with construction and support – from building roads and foundations to running electrical lines to turbines.
“Just for our part of it, we’re looking at about 45,000 man hours … which is roughly 20 to 30 jobs for over a year,” said Greg Kipping, a business manager for the Laborers’ Local 196, a Monroe County chapter of unionized construction workers. He suggested that opponents “weren’t grasping” the local impact the project could have on support jobs.
Others, though, are worried about the project and skeptical about job estimates or other selling points touted by proponents.
At the recent county board meeting and online, plenty of alarm has been raised about the wind farm, including criticism of its potential aesthetic impact on the area’s farmland and forested bluffs. An oppositional Facebook group titled, “Save the Bluffs – Say NO to Joe,” has rallied more than 500 followers.
“We’re not clear-cutting any trees,” says Koppeis. “We’re going on farm ground.”
Even so, concern hits close to home for people like George Harsey, who lives on 7 quiet acres outside of Waterloo and has a backyard that faces a swath of cornfields where developers are looking to place turbines. He dreads the thought of having his current backdrop altered dramatically – something he worries could upset him economically as well as aesthetically.
“Property values, No. 1. That’s the biggest part here that I think they’re overlooking,” said Harsey. “You get 50 of these out here in this field, (and) property values will plummet.”
A water tower and a couple antenna towers already line the horizon behind him, but Harsey says those aren’t the same.
“I don’t want 50 St. Louis arches behind my house,” he said, referencing a landmark that would be comparable in height to the turbines, tip to tip. “I love what I have here, and I moved out here intentionally.”
As county officials reiterated during the recent discussion of the project, the regulatory process surrounding the wind farm is still in its very initial stages and perhaps a year or more away from an official application for approval.
Developers still need to satisfy a range of studies and other requirements – such as paying for road repair and improvements – outlined in a county ordinance put in place in 2012, as Koppeis ramped up his wind farm aspirations.
Koppeis said that many studies, including environmental impact studies about birds and bats in the area, were already successfully completed over the last decade, but need to be redone and updated – something he expects will happen without any new surprises.
Vital financial details behind the project also still need to fall into place before a finalized concept and application can take shape. Developers are privately courting utilities and corporations to line up a buyer for the project’s power and are simultaneously pursuing lease arrangements with individual farmers to nail down locations for turbines.
Koppeis said he just wants the county to eventually reach an objective, fact-based decision about the proposal.
“There’s nothing you can do that makes everybody happy,” said Koppeis. That seems especially true, he notes, when it comes to wind energy. “Nobody wants it in their backyard, but everybody wants it.”
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