Business cards were passed and hands shaken as Sunpin Solar Development unveiled the details of its 125-acre solar farm to more than 60 local business and civic leaders Thursday.
Company officials said they are at the start of the process of building the 94,000-module arrays in Kewanee’s 136-acre Lininger Industrial Park, for which Sunpin has signed an option and lease deal with the Kewanee Economic Development Corporation.
In fact, it could be up to 18 months before the solar farm’s annual production of 25 MW of electricity can be channeled to the power grid as the company seeks a host of local, state and federal approvals, an interconnection agreement with Ameren and a buyer for its “green” power.
“We’re looking to make Illinois a home for us,” said Sunpin managing partner Steve Kim, noting that the California-based company’s first project was a 2 MW rooftop array in Chicago, and that it had plans for others here.
“We’re doing this through the state of Illinois, not just here,” he said.
The company, established in 2012, was named in the solar industry’s top five companies for the amount of kilowatt hours its projects have produced nationwide, which is around 100.
Kim said the development will help the community in the short term with one-time construction jobs and ongoing maintenance work, but there also are benefits “that will come afterwards.”
He said many modern companies locate where there is a green-energy base and Kewanee can benefit from having that base.
He said having solar farms nearby can be a “potential economic boon” for communities who make “green” energy a part of their business footprint.
“They all have renewable energy goals,” he said.
Several taxing bodies will also see additional revenue from the project, though being located in the Henry County Enterprise Zone, Sunpin will receive sales tax abatement for construction-related purchases. Any property value increases for the city would be captured in Kewanee’s TIF district. The official said the state was not incentivizing the project other than through investment tax credits.
Kim said the state had established a real estate tax range for assessing solar farms, which he said is in the $4,000 to $6,000 range for each megawatt produced.
“It’s up to the local taxing body to make that decision (of where it falls in the range),” he said.
What’s making solar so popular in Illinois right now is that the state recently changed some of its rules so it, too, could catch up on its long-term renewable energy goals. The state’s goal of using 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 will be difficult to reach considering the percentage now is about 7.
“There’s an incredible amount of growth needed,” said Sunpin’s William Behling, the Kewanee project manager — and Sunpin hopes to fill much of that need.
Other cost considerations are that today’s panels are more efficient (half-percent annual power-generating degradation) and less expensive because of the industry’s worldwide growth.
“Solar and wind represent the cheapest energy sources in the United States,” Behling said, noting they are much less expensive than building a coal-fired power plant.
Behling said the company already had filed its interconnection agreement with Ameren, which he said could take up to a year to finalize.
And it continues to seek a local buyer of the power or a company anywhere in the U.S. looking to sign a virtual power agreement, which treats renewably-produced electricity as credits that a company can offset in its energy use.
“We’re trying to reach out to as many entities as we can” to find a buyer, he said. “Our soonest scenario…is the second half of 2020.”
Sunpin will contract with a company to construct the wind farm. Behling said he had been taking names and contacts of local companies and workers to provide to the contractor prior to the project starting.
“There are not many long-term jobs,” he said, “but they will look to hire workers locally.”
The company representatives, during a presentation that included company project videos, also took questions from the audience.
One of the questioners asked about long-term jobs and was told they include regular grass cutting and snow removal work, as well as electrical and maintenance work. The company will plant a specific low-maintenance grass and the wind farm, located just across the railroad tracks at the west end of Page Street, will be fenced in with a 6- to 8-foot gated fence.
Another asked about disposal after the 30-year life of the solar panels has ended. The company officials said the company would start a “decommissioning” fund early on in the process and that states already were considering future industry disposal guidelines.
One questioner pointed out that the property taxes generated from the Kewanee farm wouldn’t be that different than the current farmland value, another said the state’s property tax value range was higher for wind developments, and another worried that the solar farms were taking away valuable farmland.
Company officials expanded on the latter topic, saying that they and others are undertaking efforts to identify less valuable and “brownfield” spaces for future solar developments.
Another questioner asked about the glare from the panels and the proximity of the airport, an issue that officials said would be broached during the permitting stage. He said part of their process included working through any Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.
Kim reitered the companies commitment to working with local community colleges to help offer renewable energy job training and education partnerships.
“It’s a new opportunity for young people and people looking for career options,” he said.
Kim admitted to one questioner that the small solar farm in Kewanee could not compete in output with a coal-fired electricity plant, but it could reduce overall dependence on fossil fuels.
“We have to be not a replacement, but another alternative,” he said.
Behling said the company already was considering expanded its local footprint and had scouted “additional projects smaller than this one in this area.”
Kathy Albert, KEDC’s executive director, said she was pleased with the turnout and the discussion about Sunpin’s plans.
“We had a nice cross-section of people and it clarified a lot of things,” she said. “Anything that opens conversations and gets the correct word out there is always positive.”