Author: Dan Gearino, Aydali Campa  Published: 2/27/2023  Inside Climate News

Randy DeBaillie walks toward his solar panels at his farm in Orion, Illinois on Feb. 3, 2019. Credit: Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Two years ago, Illinois had adopted a landmark clean energy law that called for building vast amounts of renewable power. At the same time, 15 counties with some of the most land available for wind and solar had passed, or were about to pass, restrictions on new development that made the state’s goals more difficult to reach.

Something had to give.

That something came last month, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that took away the ability of local governments to limit or ban wind and solar power, a measure that follows similar actions in California and New York.

Now, officials from places that had restricted development of renewables projects—like Ford County, located in the rural area between Chicago and Champaign-Urbana—are livid about what they view as a power grab by majority Democrats.

“My concern is for the health, safety and general welfare of our citizens, something the state has seemingly lost sight of,” said Cindy Ihrke, vice chairman of the Ford County Board, in an email.

“This bill takes away a county’s ability to regulate siting in each of our unique areas,” she added. “What is good for one county is not always good for the one next door.”

Supporters of the law respond that they had little choice but to take action because local governments have relied on misleading or false information about the safety and economics of renewable energy to pass rules that are not in the public interest.

The law has intensified the conflict rather than helping to heal it, and similar debates are happening across the country.

Clean energy advocates hope that the law is trend-setting in the Midwest; advocates point to Indiana and Michigan as states to watch, but people in those states say there is little chance of something passing this year.

While there is agreement that rural resistance to wind and solar is an impediment to development, experts disagree about whether it’s a good idea to deal with this opposition by yanking power away from local officials.

“I think, in the short term, (the Illinois law) will get a whole lot of wind and solar built,” said Sarah Mills of the University of Michigan, who writes about land use conflicts over renewable energy development.

But she has concerns that the benefits may end up being smaller than the harm that comes from the way the law solidifies the idea that urban areas are imposing renewable energy on rural areas.

“This is not the way you build bridges between urban and rural areas,” she said. “It’s making that chasm even wider.”

And yet, clean energy advocates say the law was necessary.

Sarah Fox, a Northern Illinois University law professor, said there is a growing awareness that local control of development can be harmful if the result is a shutdown in new construction due to pressure from local residents.

“It has become so clear that if we are serious about decarbonization, then the scale on which we need to be adopting renewable energy is vast,” she said.

Her legal work includes representing property owners in Piatt County, located in central Illinois, who have leased their property for Goose Creek Wind Farm, a 300-megawatt proposal. County officials in January approved a moratorium on wind farm applications, but that doesn’t include the application for Goose Creek, which is still pending.

Fox said the existential threat of climate change means that the regulatory system needs to err on the side of allowing renewable energy development, even if that means reducing local control.

Battles to Build Renewable Projects Can Be ‘Really Ugly’

Ford County is one of the 15 Illinois counties where local rules have made development almost impossible, according to renewable energy companies.

Marge Vetter, a retired high school math teacher in the county, went through a conflict-ridden process that lasted for more than a decade to be able to have a wind farm built adjacent to her family’s farm. The project went online last year.

She and her husband, Paul Vetter, a retired farmer, support the new law because they feel like their local government isn’t making rational decisions.

“It was really ugly,” she said, about the local debate. “People calling names and pointing fingers and making up stories that, you know, the blades were gonna fall off and come crashing down and the chemicals from the turbines … would get into our water system. It is just pathetic.”

Indeed, many of the claims made by opponents of wind power are not supported by evidence, and are part of what clean energy advocates say is a torrent of misleading information.

But local officials say they are responding to legitimate worries about the way turbines change the visual landscape, and they say they are tired of the way many people dismiss concerns about health and safety of renewable energy.

Earlier this month, a wind turbine in the county (not in the project next to the Vetter farm) collapsed. Neighbors told a local television station that they heard a sound like the rumble of thunder or a shed door closing, and they could feel the vibration of the impact.

Nobody was injured and the owner of the project, RWE Renewables, said this kind of structural failure was rare.

The collapse, which occurred soon after the new state law was signed, helped highlight the folly of the law, according to local officials.

“The state law is forcing turbines to be allowed to be built too close to homes and the county cannot require them to be farther away for safety,” said Ihrke, vice chairman of the county board.

The Need for a Ban on Bans

The new law, H.B. 4412, sets requirements for utility-scale wind and solar projects and says that local governments are barred from having any rules that are more restrictive than the state rules. Local governments are required to approve any wind or solar project that meets the rules. Counties with bans on renewable energy development must rescind those restrictions within 120 days.

Last year, Pritzker said at an Illinois Farm Bureau forum that he opposed limits on local control of wind and solar projects.

What changed was the spread of local bans on projects, according to some of the leading supporters of the new law.

The stakes were high. Pritzker had signed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021, a law that requires the state to get to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. The state needs to encourage a big increase in wind and solar development if it’s going to have any chance of meeting the goal.

The opponents included local governments and the Illinois Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau argued that the state standards should have required longer distances between wind turbines and neighboring properties. Also, the organization wanted to preserve the ability of counties to regulate the drainage plans of renewable energy projects to help reduce excess runoff and erosion.