DeKALB – It’s been less than a year since three industrial solar energy projects were approved for 6,000 acres of land in DeKalb County, and conversations on the future of more renewable energy projects in the area continues.
The topic was at the center of two recent DeKalb County Board and committee meetings, meant to further conversation on the growth of the county’s solar industry whole fielding a slew of questions – many not new – by neighboring residents on preferred land use.
It’s not a new conversation at the county government level. In 2021, two industrial solar farms by Texas-based Leeward Energy and one by cellular company Samsung spurred months of public debate. Together, the trio of major solar development will claim 6,000 acres of land.
Weeks after the November 2021 vote to approve the solar farms, the DeKalb County Board declared a 12,000-acre cap on the amount of land that could be designated for commercial solar projects in the area.
For some, the now approved projects brought opposition, with many confronting local leadership about worries over potential impacts on farmable land use, visible impediments for neighbors, proximity to residential property and the size of solar energy panels. For others, including supporters of the projects and area farmers who entered into agreements with solar developers to lease their land for the energy conduits, the debate was simple: Private landowners had a right to designate what their acreage could be used for. Many farmers touted the benefits of renewable energy as the future, and an alternative use for corn production. For the DeKalb County Board, solar energy provided another path to produce more taxable property revenue, officials have said.
It’s an ongoing pot that’s been stirred up yet again, as county officials look to codify local policy which would more specifically desginate what land could be used for solar energy production.
“We are very concerned about the effects of solar installations on our community, on the ground underneath and the infrastructure around it,” Kingston Township resident Kathrine Andraski said during an Aug. 18 special Planning and Zoning Committee meeting for the county.
Andraski was one of several residents who came to multiple public government meetings this month to declare her concerns over DeKalb County’s future in the solar energy business.
Not everyone shares Andraski’s views, however.
Roy Plote, a Republican from District 11, said residents will be unhappy whether neighbors on farm land invest in solar or sell to a developer to build residential development.
“That guy that owns that ground can do what he wants with it,” Plote said. “But if you’re happier with houses or happier with solar, that’s not the point. The point is the person that owns the property gets to do what he wants with it, and that’s my standing.”
As the topic comes again to the forefront of public debate, several more solar gardens were approved Aug. 17 by County Board: A pair of 2-megawatt solar gardens on the northeast corner of Genoa and Melms roads in Kingston and a 2-megawatt garden for Whiskey Acres on the southeast corner of Crego and Keslinger Roads in Afton Township.
Separately, Jamie Walters, owner of Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. in DeKalb, was one of many area farmers who leased hundreds of acres of land to bring in the Leeward Energy solar developments last year. At the time, Walters told the Daily Chronicle solar energy was imperative to help move away from fossil fuels “to a more sustainable energy production,” and that his solar business was separate from the distillery.
As county officials again begin to parse out whether to codify more specific regulations on solar energy use and land, some residents continue to rail against the efforts.
“At this point we’ve already been devastated by the county but we want to protect other residents in the county,” resident John Lion said.
Lion and Andraski advocated for larger setbacks between solar gardens and residential areas in opposition to the approved Kingston solar garden. Lion said he didn’t want his grandson to have 15-foot solar panels 100 feet from his property line.
According to policy drafts not yet approved by the county board, an amended solar ordinance includes a minimum setback of 100 feet from property lines or right-of-ways. Components of a solar panel, except for the interconnection points, would need to be at least 300 feet “from the nearest outer wall of an occupied structure,” according to county documents. That setback requirement could be waived, however, if the solar energy developer entered into a written and notarized agreement with the adjacent property owner, according to documents.
Mary Nelson, president of the League of Women Voters in Dekalb County spoke up in support of existing solar regulations.
“I’m just here again tonight to say don’t change the setbacks,” Nelson said.
While the setbacks are a worry for some, Lion said he’s more concerned by the changing land use.
“There’s no more agriculture, we currently live in farmland,” Lion said. “The best farmland in the world is now going to be industrial and to me it doesn’t make sense.”
Resident John Lageman agreed, voicing opposition to the County Board’s actions and saying he doesn’t believe county officials are taking his concerns into consideration.
“Our concern is why are we taking productive farmland out of use when it could be, you know, used to continue to feed our country?” Lageman said.
For some, however, solar land use can be beneficial for future crop growth, too. Under the 2018 Pollinator Friendly Solar Site Act, solar farmers in Illinois can establish a vegetation management plan for land used primarily for solar panels. It’s another way for farmers to rejuvenate land beyond seasonal crop rotation.
Under the Act, native prairie grasses and pollinator plants are planted around solar panels that remain for decades, meant to encourage rest and rejuvenation of the used land, bring back specific wildlife and habitat to the area.
Other potential legislation up for County Board debate includes details on regulations for construction, installation and operation of battery energy storage systems in unincorporated DeKalb County.
County Board Chairman John Frieders voiced support of pushing forward the proposed policy for a future vote, but said he wanted to save decisions on battery energy storage until more information could be gathered.
“Because I would hate to see us go through this effort of updating our solar ordinance and then have to go right back and change the batteries. I’d rather research the batteries awhile and then come back,” said Frieders, a Republican from District 12.
Steve Faivre, a Democrat representing District 4, disagreed with Frieders’ sentiment.
“John, I think the staff has done a tremendous amount of research on this, as have the places that they’ve done the research. I don’t think research specific to DeKalb County is going to add anything,” said Faivre. “And in the meantime, we deny any company that wants to come in and do, put in a battery, they can’t put it in.”
County officials declined to remove language on battery systems from the proposed ordinance, which will be up for vote at a future meeting.
Board member Larry West, Republican from District 1, voiced concerns over solar farm production’s fire risks. He said he didn’t support pushing the legislation forward without adding a safety provision.
“It shouldn’t be on the taxpayers or the county to provide the necessary equipment to battle these,” said West. “Having seen a lithium fire myself, and experienced it, it should be on the companies to provide the training for the fire departments.”
County Director of Community Development, Derek Hiland, said a firefighter training on solar panel emergencies in Kirkland last month was the only training he’s aware of that has been conducted in the area.
“It’s good that the conversations are happening,” Hiland said. “I think they’ll be more regular, but you know, from what I heard it was well attended from the area.”
Amended language was added to the proposed solar policies which would require solar developers to help pay for and organize training and equipment for area fire departments in the event of a fire at a solar farm.
Lageman said he and his peers aren’t against renewable energy.
“Our group is not against alternative energy, it’s not against solar power. Our group is for doing things responsibly and smartly and, you know, with logic,” said Lageman.
The DeKalb County Board is expected to vote on updated solar ordinances at a future meeting.
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