Solar farm gets OK; land had been considered for Champaign high school
CHAMPAIGN — A solar-power facility planned on the University of Illinois' south farms will be built on land that has been under consideration for a new Champaign high school.
The 20.5-acre solar farm, a $15.5 million project approved Thursday by UI trustees, will be built on the south side of Windsor Road, between First and Neil Streets. The land is now used by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
The Champaign school district has been considering a 70-acre plot at the southwest corner of First and Windsor — and a similar one on the northwest corner of First and Curtis Road — as a possible location for a new high school to replace Champaign Central. Both remain on a district website — at http://bit.ly/UIsolarfarm — showing 11 potential sites for the new school.
Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand and other school officials said they weren't aware that the university was planning a solar farm near that corner until they read about it in The News-Gazette last week.
UI administrators, for their part, said they didn't realize the school district was still seriously interested in the land.
Former Associate Chancellor Bill Adams, who is now an adviser to UI President Bob Easter, said Unit 4 officials approached him several years ago about the idea of building a school on the west side of First Street, somewhere between Curtis and Windsor.
The UI was agreeable and suggested it be located at the north or south end of that area, fronting Windsor or Curtis, rather than in the middle.
But Adams said school officials later indicated they weren't interested in the property.
"We were under the assumption that it was no longer in play," Adams said Thursday.
The school district first identified seven possible sites for a new school two years ago, including the two on UI property, as it debated Central's future. The board later eliminated some and added others, and recently hired an educational facility planning firm, DeJong Richter, to weigh community opinions on the sites.
Associate Director Scott Leopold said the firm is working on a demographic study and the community discussions will likely begin in December. Wiegand hopes to bring a recommendation to the school board by late April.
Ideally, the district wants 60 acres for a new school and athletic fields.
Once the solar farm is built there won't be enough room left along the Windsor Road site, UI officials said. The solar farm will consume a large chunk of the west side of that plot, and much of the rest is taken up by the pond, flood plain and right-of way.
But the Curtis Road site would still be an option, officials said.
"There still would be land available if the community decided to still build a high school in that area," Wiegand said. "We'd have to take a look at it and have it appraised again."
School board member Dave Tomlinson, who was board president when the UI land was first considered, said the initial discussions never got beyond the talking stage. Of the two First Street sites, Tomlinson said the district was leaning toward the northern one, on Windsor. It sits in unincorporated Champaign County but abuts the city of Champaign, whereas the Curtis Road site is in Savoy.
But Adams thought the district was more interested in the Curtis Road site, which offers more land between First Street and the railroad tracks. No curb cuts would have been possible along Windsor, and that property posed safety hazards — the pond and proximity to the Canadian National railroad tracks and the UI's Fire Services Institute, UI officials said.
Adams said the university wanted to work with the school district if possible.
"We want to have good schools in Champaign-Urbana," he said.
Most likely, the UI would have proposed a land swap, whereby the school district would buy other farm property and transfer that to the UI in exchange for the First Street plots.
The UI's master plan shows no other future uses of the sites, other than research farms, Adams said. he land is now used by the Department of Crop Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.
"That's really fertile, really good land," Adams said.
The solar farm is scheduled to begin producing power by next fall. Phoenix Solar Inc. of San Ramon, Calif., will design, build and operate the farm for the first 10 years, and the UI will buy all the energy produced under a $15.5 million power-purchase agreement. After 10 years the UI will own the solar farm.
The UI will pay about $5.3 million more for the energy over the first 10 years than it would cost to produce it from conventional sources. But it's expected to produce about 2 percent of the electricity used by the campus, helping it meet energy goals outlined in a 2010 Climate Action Plan. The campus Student Sustainability Committee has tentatively agreed to cover about $1 million of that $5.3 million subsidy with proceeds from a student sustainability fee. In other business Thursday:
— Trustees approved Adams' appointment as a visiting senior adviser to the president through June 30, at a salary of $96,000. Adams retired in June but was rehired to lead a review of UI central administration.
— Sidney Micek, who is retiring next month as executive director of the UI Foundation, reported that new business is down $18 million in the first quarter of this fiscal year, and cash flow is down $10 million, over the same period last year. But he noted that the UI wrapped up its Brilliant Futures campaign last year, the best fundraising year on record for the foundation.
Micek also said the UI's $100 million Presidential Scholarship Initiative has raised 57 percent of its goal, well ahead of schedule, and the target may be increased. The initiative is scheduled to wrap up in June 2014.