Wind may be farmers' new crop

Tim Landis and Doug Finke

There are still a good many steps remaining before 150 to 200 wind turbines can begin cranking out power southwest of Taylorville — not the least of which is signing leases for a project expected to spread across 25,000 acres in two counties.

But at least one Christian County farmer is interested in the project, which was announced Wednesday by Dominion Corp.

The Prairie Fork Wind Farm would become one of the largest in Illinois. It also would be the farthest south in the state.

“Definitely, I’m interested. I’m just not 100 percent sure yet if I’m eligible. I plan to go online, or visit with Dominion, to find out,” said Mel Repscher, whose 223-acre farm is in the proposed project area.

Dominion executives said they will begin contacting landowners in the two counties about the possibility of hosting turbines for the Prairie Fork Wind Farm. Lease payments are estimated at $3,000 to $4,000 per year per turbine.

Two public meetings have been scheduled for early next month in Taylorville and Farmersville.

Dominion vice president of business development Scot Hathaway said property owners would be asked to sign “short-form easement agreements that give our company the option of negotiating a long-term easement agreement at a later date.”

Hathaway said each turbine would have a “small footprint,” and most transmission lines would be underground. The company also plans to study the potential effect on wildlife.

Even though a series of permits still must be approved and wind tests done to determine tower placement, the announcement of energy-related jobs and a boost in property tax revenues was generally welcomed in the two counties, which have been hit hard by coal-mine layoffs the past few years.

“We feel like we are on the leading edge here, and we’re ready for them,” said Christian County Board Chairman John Curtin.

Curtin said the county recently adopted rules for wind-farm construction, including tower-height limits, setbacks from residential areas and road specifications. The county board, which would have to approve plans for the wind farm, would consider extending enterprise zone tax benefits to the site, he added.

County officials also will help Dominion as it begins contacting farmers, who are the bulk of landowners in the project area, Curtin said.

“It won’t go unless they have agreements with the farmers. They haven’t talked to their first farmer yet,” he said.

Christian County Farm Bureau manager Eric Johnson said the organization has not taken a position on Prairie Fork Wind Farm, but the Farm Bureau generally supports renewable-energy projects.

“We haven’t said we’ll support it either way, but it’s almost a no-brainer when it’s going to produce this much renewable energy and there’s an opportunity to bring tax revenue into the county,” he said.

While Montgomery County has neither a wind-farm ordinance nor zoning, economic development coordinator Heather Hampton-Knodle said the county board has asked for assurances from Dominion that landowners’ interest will be protected and the project will be environmentally friendly.

Wind farms are not without opposition in central Illinois. A group of Logan County residents this month helped block that county’s portion of a proposed 11,000-acre wind farm in Logan and Tazewell counties. Landowners claim the turbines would hurt nearby property values.

Dave Loomis, who is director of the Illinois Wind Working Group at Illinois State University in Normal, said wind-farm approval is a local-government issue unless major highways, airports or environmentally sensitive areas are involved.

Loomis said better technology — including taller towers and more efficient turbines — have made it possible to build wind farms farther south.

“If you look at the annual wind maps, southern Illinois looks not to be a very good prospect, but they’re moving farther and farther down in central Illinois. Part of it is, you’re getting turbines that can use lower and lower wind speeds,” said Loomis.

Christian County has had its share of stops and starts with energy projects the past few years, ranging from coal mines that never materialized to a company that converted coal dust to fuel pellets only to close after two years in 2000.

Work has yet to start on a coal gasification plant near Taylorville that was proposed nearly seven years ago.

Repscher, who is a member of the Farm Bureau and also serves on a rural-electric cooperative board, said he believes Dominion will come through — if the company can convince local landowners.

“It’s just like anything. It comes down to the bottom line, and right now it looks pretty attractive,” he said.

Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536. Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.

Dominion Corp.

Corporate headquarters are in Richmond, Va.

Operates 26,500 megawatts of power generation, including coal, natural gas, nuclear and wind. Coal-fired plants include the Kincaid Power Station south of Springfield.

Has retail customers in 11 states and reported net income of $2.5 billion in 2007. Owns the nation's largest underground natural gas storage system with 975 billion cubic feet of capacity.

Prairie Fork Wind Farm

Proposed 300-megawatt wind farm on 25,000 acres in southwest Christian and northern Montgomery counties, 26 miles southeast of Springfield. By comparison, Lake Springfield covers about 4,200 acres.

Average wind speed in the area: 121/2 mph; 7-8 mph needed for commercial wind generation.

Construction slated to begin in 2010, and power generation in 2011. Project to create 15 to 20 permanent jobs and $1 million a year in property tax revenue.

Public informational meetings scheduled for 5:30-7:30 p.m., Monday, May 5, at Taylorville Memorial Hospital, 201 E. Pleasant St.; and 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 6, at Knights of Columbus Hall, 104 S. East St. in Farmersville.

Sources: Dominion and Christian County

Wind production in Illinois

Camp Grove Wind Farm (2007), Marshall and Stark counties, 150 megawatts

Twin Groves II (2007), McLean County, 161.7 megawatts

GSG Wind Farm (2007), Lee and LaSalle counties, 80 megawatts

Twin Groves I (2007), McLean County, 198 megawatts

Crescent Ridge (2005), Bureau County, 54.45 megawatts

Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative (2005), Pike County, 165 megawatts

Bureau Valley School District (2004), Bureau County, 0.66 megawatts

Mendota Hills (2003), LaSalle County, 50.4 megawatts

Source: American Wind Energy Association (Note: A megawatt is enough power to supply 500-600 homes.)