CHARLESTON – Lease agreements, utility regulations and local permitting processes mean it will be three years or more before recently announced wind energy projects might become a reality in Central Illinois.
That was the timeline shared by a representative of the company that announced plans last month for wind turbine projects in Coles and McLean counties, with a project in Macon County possible as well.
“It’s going to be a multiyear process,” said Max Jabrixio, a manager with Apex Clean Energy.
The company announced last month that it’s planning to build a 70-turbine wind farm on about 20,000 acres of land in a yet-undetermined location in northern Coles County. An announcement from the company about plans for a similar project in eastern McLean County came a week later.
Jabrixio said Apex is also planning a wind energy project in Macon County. He said the company is contacting local officials about the plan before making a formal announcement.
Jabrixio said Apex, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been pursuing wind energy projects in Central Illinois for some time.
A company wind farm in Vermilion County was completed in 2015 and there are other Illinois projects in various stages of development, he said.
The areas in the two counties where the wind farms could be located are “pretty broad,” Jabrixio said. More exact locations will be determined based on reaching lease agreements with landowners, he explained.
In Coles County, the area is roughly north of Charleston to the Douglas County line and west to Interstate 57, Jabrixio said.
In McLean County, it’s the area between LeRoy and Heyworth south to the DeWitt County line, he said.
Jabrixio wouldn’t identify any landowner with whom the company’s negotiating but said there’s been “a really positive early response” with some agreements already in place in both counties.
The negotiations are a long part of the process, he said. There are “huge benefits” to landowners but Apex wants to make sure they’re comfortable with and understand the “long-term commitment” with the project, he explained.
The projected operational life of the wind turbines is 30 years.
The Coles County project is expected to provide more than $1.5 million per year to leaseholders in each county, Jabrixio said. It’s estimated that the projects will bring about $60 million in property tax revenue to each county’s taxing bodies during the time they’re operational, he added.
The district Coles County Board Chairman Mike ZuHone represents covers most of the northern third of the county and the entire area that Apex is considering.
ZuHone noted that he’s not running for re-election this year so he won’t be on the board when it would ultimately face a decision on the wind energy proposal. However, he also said he’s talked to about a half-dozen of his constituents and he’s “hearing both sides,” with the response evenly divided.
Landowners would have financial benefits but farmers who farm but don’t own the land wouldn’t share in that, ZuHone noted. There’s also a question of the wind farm’s long-term impact on property values, he said.
ZuHone, a farmer himself, also said each wind turbine’s footprint would be relatively small but the total overall “eats up a lot of acres.” That’s “not a significant financial concern” but could pose a “significant inconvenience” when it comes to maneuvering farm equipment, he said.
The total amount of leased land will cover “vastly more acreage” than is actually needed for the turbines’ construction, Jabrixio said. Additional space will be for setbacks from roads and other property, any areas identified as being impacted environmentally and for other reasons, he explained.
He said each wind turbine will have an access road and a concrete base pad and will take “less than an acre from farm production.”
Jabrixio also said the scheduling could be affected by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc., an independent but quasi-government agency that oversees the midwest electrical grid.
Going through the agency is “basically getting in line” to be able to provide electricity to the grid, he explained.
The company would eventually have to file a permit application with Coles County, but Jabrixio said that would take place closer to the planned start of construction.
The projects would likely be operational in 2024 or 2025, perhaps 2023 but only if everything goes “incredibly smoothly,” he added.
Coles County’s wind energy ordinance has been in place since 2005, adopted when another project was in the planning stages for a nearby area. It requires a fee payment, height and other restrictions and that at least one public hearing take place before the county board acts on the application.
The county’s Regional Planning and Development Commission has been reviewing the ordinance and some changes are likely, commission Executive Director Kelly Lockhart said.
Changes will likely include adjustments to a bond deposit requirement to help cover possible costs of decommissioning the turbines after they are no longer in use, he said.
“We want to make sure property owners are covered,” Lockhart said.
He said he thinks the changes could go to the county board for consideration in a few months.
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