Will County wins gold award for solar energy plan
Will County apparently is as golden as the sun when it comes to promoting solar energy, according to SolSmart, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Five months after winning the bronze designation, Will County recently was recognized as a Gold SolSmart community for implementing an energy and conservation plan that encourages the growth of the solar market, county officials said.
Gold is the highest designation in the SolSmart program, which is part of a national effort with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to reduce the cost and the red tape of developing solar energy.
“We are becoming an attractive location for solar farms. This is a new aspect of economic development and we got out ahead of the curve and modified our polices, so we are prepared to accommodate this growth,” said Curt Paddock, director of the county’s Land Use Department.
This award is “recognition of that fact,” he told the county board during Thursday’s meeting.
Samantha Bluemer, the county’s Energy and Conservation Specialist, said the county now offers online permitting, online scheduling of inspections, advanced training for inspection service, consumer protections, and financing options as the solar market develops in Will County.
Two others in Illinois have achieved the gold designation in Illinois, the city of Chicago, and Beach Park, according to the www.solsmart.org website.
The designation recognizes communities that have taken steps to reduce barriers to solar and encourage the growth of a more robust solar market and are committed to a cleaner environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It should decrease customer costs, provide jobs, and increase investment in solar development, according to the website.
Will County officials are now addressing regulations for solar farms as they update zoning codes.
At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, officials heard a presentation from those in the solar energy field, to help them understand the issues.
The county is now considering a permit request from a developer who wants to create a community solar farm in Crete Township and more are coming, officials said.
Interest is currently high for this market because the state is offering incentives to develop solar energy through the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), Sara Wochos, director of policy and business development for Borrego Solar, told the committee.
Developers need a willing landowner who is near a connecting utility, but they also are looking for a permitting process that is “not onerous,” Wochos said.
Once accepted for the incentive program, an energy company has to build within 18 months, which is why the county is starting to see permit applications for solar farms, especially on farmland, where are there are no trees or buildings.
According to FEJA, a company that receives an incentive has to deliver solar energy for at least 15 years, or face a stiff penalty. If one company goes out of business, it must sell to another to keep the solar farm operating, she said, allaying county officials’ concerns about such projects being abandoned.
Companies only make money if they continue to operate, so abandoning a project “is something that will not happen,” she said. Developers also are required to return the land to its original condition.
Solar farms also would pay more property taxes than agricultural land, she said.