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Solar farm planned for Highland as Chicago-based company leases land

Belleville News Democrat

Sunday, October 14, 2018  |  Article  |  By Kavahn Mansouri

Energy, Alternative Energy (93) , Metro East (65)
In the last year, nine different companies approached Dr. William Drake about his land a half a mile west of Highland Road and Hemlock Street in hopes of leasing the land for a solar farm.

The increased interest is part of an ongoing push for solar in Illinois, stemming from the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act of 2016. Legislation enacted last summer implemented requirements and incentives for renewable energy providers creating a gold rush-like push to build solar farms throughout the state.

Since then, companies have been searching for farmland like Drake’s that could serve as a home for solar farms, where rows of solar panels would convert rays of sunlight into electricity, which are then added to the state’s power grid.

Chicago-based renewable energy company Summit Ridge Energy won the opportunity to build on Drake’s 145 acres through a 25-year lease.

A smaller, 14-acre parcel of land that will host one of Summit Ridge’s two planned solar farms is currently working its way through the city’s special use permit approval process. The permit would allow the farm’s construction and will be up for final approval at the next meeting of the Highland City Council Monday, Oct. 15.

“I’m just the farmer leasing the sun,” Drake said of the agreement, which sees Summit Ridge building the solar farm, paying taxes for the land and maintaining the grounds after the farm is built.

Summit Ridge President Mark Raeder said his company tries to target low-yielding farmland, like the parcel Drake has leased, for its solar farms. He said that along with a close proximity with an Ameren substation and the absence of wetlands can make land attractive to solar companies.

Solar farms are an indirect way renewable energy producers can provide solar to people who typically wouldn’t have access to solar energy, Raeder said.

“It brings solar to these customers who might not have a rooftop to put a solar panel on or those who live near shade, in condos or just don’t have the means for renewable energy,” Raeder said.

Each farm takes up roughly 14 to 15 acres, Raeder said. That means if the company were to use the entire 145 acres they could build roughly nine solar farms on Drake’s property.

Lottery-style funding

However, that may all rely on chance due to the sheer amount of companies looking to build farms throughout the state. Even if the city approves Summit Ridge’s request, there’s still a possibility the farms won’t be built.

In order to fund the farms, companies planning to build solar farms have to apply for approval with the Illinois Power Agency. If more than 75 applications are submitted, which Raeder said is increasingly likely, applicants will be picked through a lottery.

It’s estimated only 75 solar farms will be approved by the agency in the first round of funding. Each farm is capable of producing 2 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt can power 750 to 1,000 homes.

The Future Energy Jobs Act will be funded partially through a 2 percent surcharge on residential and commercial power bills. The hope is that adding the renewable energy will save money for the state in the long run.

The lottery is unfortunate, Raeder said, because it means at the end of the cycle if both of Summit Ridge’s planned farms aren’t selected, the company would have to simply wait and hope for future

For farms not chosen, there’s some hope there will be additional cycles of funding from the IPA. He said he’s optimistic that will happen.

Who will benefit?

If the farms are funded and, eventually, built, Ameren customers in the surrounding Highland area will have access to the solar farm’s production.

However, customers on the city’s energy grid, won’t be able to use the farm for the time being. That’s due to a longstanding contract between Highland and the Illinois Municipal Electric Association, a group formed to buy wholesale power for smaller communities like Highland.

City Manager Mark Latham said it would be several years before the city itself could buy into an agreement like the proposed solar farm, but noted that the association could purchase power from a nearby solar farm if it so chose.

“We always have an interest in alternative power,” Latham said. “We’re just limited in what we can do based on the contract we have.”

Raeder said down the line he hopes Summit Ridge has a chance to provide Highland residents with renewable energy. But that, he said, relies on the actual construction of the farms.