Renewable energy company responds to local solar farm concerns

MENDOTA - NextEra Energy Resources, the company proposing a solar farm project near Mendota, wants to be a good neighbor. Brian Garner, spokesman for NextEra, said the company wants to build in partnership with the community and has gone to great lengths to do so.

Garner said NextEra operates more renewable energy projects than any other company with projects in 32 states across the country. “We’re proud of the partnerships we’ve built with the communities that host them,” he commented.

Garner explained that their plan for Mendota is a 4-megawatt photovoltaic solar project. The panels convert the sun’s energy into electricity that is fed through underground lines to a nearby substation where it can be delivered to the larger power grid to help meet Illinois’ renewable energy goals. He noted that a solar project such as this has a low profile because it is quiet, uses no water and makes no emissions. It will also create local economic benefits, including $10-15,000 per year in property taxes and construction jobs during the building process. Once operational, Garner said the project is easy to maintain and will be continually monitored by engineers in a control and diagnostic center at the company’s headquarters in Juno Beach, Fla.

“While the vast majority of residents support renewable energy projects like this one, we recognize that some neighbors who live beside our project area have questions and concerns,” Garner acknowledged. “Our developer, Michael Altman, met with neighbors [in Mendota] starting in July. He shared the plans for the project and listened to neighbors’ concerns.”

Sue Masear Anderson, whose property borders the proposed solar farm, said she did not speak to Altman and knew nothing about the project until Aug. 31 when she got a letter from LaSalle County advising her of a Sept. 19 zoning board hearing on the matter. Although Anderson learned that the short notice was acceptable from a legal standpoint, she had many concerns about what would happen to her surroundings and property value if a solar farm was built so close to her home.

Anderson and the other neighboring property owners got a reprieve at the Sept. 19 hearing when the zoning board “recessed” the matter for a month. During that time, discussions were held with NextEra and Garner said the company adjusted the project in several ways to address the neighbors’ concerns.

The changes include:

* Changed the design of the project in a way that is less commercially viable but more in line with what neighbors requested.

* Reduced the size of the project from 29 to 15 acres.

* Increased setbacks between the project and homes to 500 feet. (Garner said this is beyond any requirements the county laid out and is possibly the largest solar setback in the state.)

* Committed to install a green slatted fence to minimize neighbors’ view of the panels.

* Committed to plant 5-6-foot tall evergreens (which will grow significantly taller) to further minimize neighbors’ view.

* Provided the county with a decommissioning agreement, which includes a financial security. At the end of the project’s operational life, in the event NextEra is no longer a part of the project, the county will have sufficient financial security to remove the panels and restore the land to its original state. Garner said this sort of agreement is not required by the county but was provided as an additional security.

Although some residents are concerned this solar project will impact the rural character in LaSalle County, Garner said in other communities across the country, farmers find renewable energy projects complementary to their operations. “The panels themselves do not impact the land,” he explained. “The land under the panels will be planted with native grasses, as detailed in the storm water plan we submitted with our application. At the end of the project’s life, if the landowner wishes to remove the panels and resume farming corn or any other crop, he can certainly do that, as the land will be maintained in as good or better condition than when the project began. Increasingly, farmers are choosing to partner with renewable energy projects as a way to diversify their income and hedge against the variability of weather and commodity prices.”

As for property values, Garner said studies have shown that renewable energy projects do not negatively affect property values. The most comprehensive study, performed by Berkeley Labs and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, looked at approximately 50,000 home sales near wind energy projects and found no impact on property values, Garner said. Since solar projects have less visual impact than wind turbines, he said they would not expect any negative impact on local property values. NextEra also commissioned a Chicago firm to study the issue in Illinois. While that study agreed that solar projects do not negatively impact property values, it also said there were only a small number of existing solar farms in Illinois to study, so part of their findings were based on interviews with real estate brokers. The brokers said they had seen no difference in price for homes directly adjacent to solar farms in Illinois and Indiana.

As for storm damage, Garner said their solar projects are designed to meet the wind and weather conditions of the counties that host them. “While no project is immune to the effects of severe weather, our solar projects in Florida weathered Hurricane Irma last year (a category 4 hurricane) and performed very well,” he noted.

With more than one million solar panels installed in Florida, Garner said only 30-40 panels were damaged in Hurricane Irma. “If our project is subject to the effects of severe weather, our company bears the responsibility to repair and replace any damage,” he added.

Garner said NextEra has gone “above and beyond” in working with neighbors of the Mendota project. “This is an excellent project that has gone to great lengths to address the needs of this community,” he said. “It will provide local economic benefits and help the state of Illinois meet its goals by generating clean, home-grown, renewable energy for years to come. We want to be a good neighbor and build a project the community can be proud of.”

NextEra’s solar farm petition is scheduled to go before the LaSalle County Board in Ottawa at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1. If it is approved, the petition will then go to the Illinois Power Agency, an independent agency established by the state in 2007, and be entered into a lottery scheduled for early next year. At this time, the state has not announced how many of those projects will be selected to move forward.


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