Something New Under The Sun… And In Our Fields

by Colleen Callahan

Planning for the future may mean “planting” solar panels to harvest a new crop.

How many times a day do you reference the sun? At sunrise? Sunset? On a long-awaited sunny day? When you are applying sunblock? While enjoying a warm sunbeam streaming through a window? Reading by sunlight, instead of a lamp? Reaching for your sunglasses?

But have you ever referred to the sun as a crop? Probably not… but you may, soon! Here’s why. It’s called the Future Energy Jobs Act, passed by the Illinois legislature in December 2016. This new law creates opportunities for landowners, homeowners, businesses, local governments and nonprofit organizations to install solar on their property or be part of a community solar project.

What is Community Solar?
Community solar projects in Illinois are required to be 2MW (megawatts) or less in size. A 2MW community solar array is comprised of approximately 7,000 solar panels affixed on pilings that are “planted” on the acreage, then connected to the nearby utility grid. The energy generated is enough to power 400 to 500 homes or five to six schools, depending on their size.

The characteristics of a good location include:

  • 15 to 20 acres of available land;
  • Preferably no better use for the land for the next 30 years;
  • Not in a wetland or area prone to regular flooding;
  • Close to three-phase electrical lines and/or substation owned by Ameren Illinois or Commonwealth Edison (per the Future Energy Jobs Act); and
  • Flat land or south-facing slopes preferred, with no shading from nearby trees or structures.

Solar developers and property owners typically agree to a 30-year lease, with payment averaging around $1,000 per acre per year, with a two-percent incremental increase per year. By comparison, land that is currently being farmed would generate cash rent between $200 and 300 per acre. In addition, the developer pays the increase in the property tax. At the end of the lease, the developer is required to return the acreage to its original state; a lease renewal is also an option. Community solar opens up access to homeowners, businesses and organizations that can’t install solar on their roof or property. Instead, they can participate in a nearby community solar project via a subscription, and be credited for the energy produced by their share of the solar installation, saving five to 10 percent on their energy bills.

Opportunity for Rural Development
Trajectory Energy Partners, one of the only Illinois-based solar developers, uses a landscape-integrated design. It encourages the planting of pollinator-friendly ground cover under the solar panels and seeks marginal, subprime, less productive or “awkwardly located” ground for projects. (By “awkwardly located,” think of a plot of ground that’s being farmed on the edge of town, with development all around and farm equipment competing with traffic).

The Future Energy Jobs Act puts Illinois on a path to become a leader in renewable energy generation. The initial goal is “25% by 2025”: generating 25 percent of our energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2025! This process is now underway, with the construction of the first community solar projects likely to begin in the first quarter of 2019. Here are the steps to getting there:

  1. Site-option lease agreement between landowner and developer (2018);
  2. Community engagement to educate community and initial local customer acquisition (2018);
  3. Zoning and permitting applications (2018);
  4. Full-interconnection analysis and design with utility (2018);
  5. Engineering and design of landscape-integrated community solar installations (2018);
  6. Application for renewable energy credits (2018);
  7. Management of financing and construction of project (2018-19); and
  8. Customer acquisition for community solar subscribers (2018-19).

Weather permitting, construction will take three to six months, creating 20 to 30 local construction jobs. That means solar connection to the grid during the spring or summer of next year.

As a lifelong farm resident and former state director for USDA Rural Development, I view community solar as an opportunity for community development in our rural areas. Producers have a chance to guarantee an income on a portion of their land for three decades—that may mean the difference in bringing the next generation into the operation, or keeping him or her there. It means another family contributing to the community. It could also mean the difference in getting an off-farm job to sustain the farm and/or pay for health insurance coverage.

The increase in the property tax will benefit area schools, libraries and infrastructure. There are no “rainy day” funds anymore in our rural communities. Applying for grants oftentimes requires matching funds. More available tax dollars could help meet that match.

How many rural municipalities and cemetery districts have available land that is suitable for the consideration of planting a new crop? Yes. Planning for the future may mean “planting” solar panels for the future to harvest a new crop… the sun! iBi

Colleen Callahan is the founder of Colleen Callahan Consultancy and a consultant for Trajectory Energy Partners.

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