Analysis: Four wind farms, 329 turbines generate $9.9 million across area

Analysis: Four wind farms, 329 turbines generate $9.9 million across area

For those whose homes butt up against one, wind turbines can be the sort of nuisance that leads to less sleep, more trips to the car wash and spotty TV reception, critics charge.

But for cash-strapped school districts, community colleges and township governments around the area, those tall, white, spinning electricity generators you see up and down Interstate 57 help pay the bills — and then some.

As Ford County officials prepare to meet Monday to discuss whether it's time to lift their six-month wind farm moratorium, The News-Gazette analyzed two years' worth of property tax revenue data to determine which towns, townships, districts and counties benefited most from the area's turbines — now at 329 and counting.

Among our findings:

— In 2016 and '17, the three area counties with wind turbines — Champaign (32 of them), Ford (144) and Vermilion (153) — received more than $9.9 million in tax revenue from wind farm projects.

— Between them, the tiny Armstrong High School and Armstrong-Ellis Grade School districts — which pull in approximately 210 students from Champaign and Vermilion counties — received more than $2 million in wind farm tax revenue the past two years.

— Fire districts in the three counties received $191,650 last year alone. That went toward purchases that ranged from new gear to replacing an old fire truck, which the Vermilion County village of Rankin did.

— Parkland College received just over $40,000 in revenue last year — far less than the $135,479 Danville Area Community College took in but still "very meaningful," said Christopher Randles, the Champaign college's chief financial officer and treasurer.

"That's about the rate of a full staff member," Randles said. "And there's other ways you can try to translate it."

 

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At the end of 2016, Illinois ranked fifth among all states for wind turbine capacity. It got there in less than a decade as bullish developers raised giant white spires all over the state, about 50 wind farms in all.

And, if county governments allow it and technological advances continue, more could be on the way in the coming years.

"It used to be true that there would be a good wind resource north of I-74," said David Loomis, director of the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State. "But as tech keeps getting better and better, it becomes more economical for us to move further south down the state where our wind speeds aren't as good."

Unlike power plants such as the Clinton Nuclear Generating Station in DeWitt County, wind farms span thousands of acres, shelling out money to both leasees and the county.

The financial benefits are undeniable:

— Taxes from the six-year-old Invenergy-operated California Ridge Wind Farm alone have meant $4.6 million for the coffers in Champaign and Vermilion counties.

As the largest wind farm in East Central Illinois, California Ridge has a total capacity of 217 megawatts, enough to power over 35,000 homes. Its 134 turbines span 27,700 acres of private land along County Road 2150 N in Vermilion County.

Thirty turbines cross the county line, into Ogden and Compromise townships in northeast Champaign County, and leave a footprint of 8,700 acres.

— There's also Hoopeston Wind, a 49-turbine farm that Apex Clean Energy developed and built for Swedish furniture giant IKEA in 2015. Vermilion County has received more than $2.8 million in taxes from it the past two years.

— The addition of the Pioneer Trail project has led to $2.3 million Ford County wouldn't have without the 77 turbines.

— The second-largest, and youngest, wind farm in East Central Illinois is the 92-unit Kelly Creek, which began operating in December 2016. It paid just over $74,000 to Ford County last year for its 66 turbines, which power the equivalent of about 78,000 homes. (Kelly Creek also encompasses part of neighboring Iroquois County).

It pays the lowest taxes compared to the area's three other large wind farms.

A map of area wind farms, and the tubines located within each, is below:

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Locally, the largest chunk of the $9.9 million in wind farm revenue in 2016-17 — about 62 percent worth — has gone to school districts.

In Armstrong, it's meant a technology boom — Wi-Fi available throughout campus and a 1-to-1 ratio in students to Chromebooks (or similar devices).

"I don't think it's a secret to anyone in education that our kids use technology in almost everything they do," said Bill Mulvaney, superintendent of both Armstrong districts. "With the wind turbines, it certainly has given us opportunities that we wouldn't have had otherwise. Without it, we would have had to phase in these programs over many years."

The way the tax formula works, when a wind farm is turned on, most school districts often see a significant uptick in tax revenue. From there, the number goes down as the state factors in the new tax environment in that county.

So, when the state sees larger tax revenue going to a district from wind farms, it reduces the amount it pays to the district.

That's the reason the Paxton-Buckley-Loda district decided to stash in a rainy-day fund the $1.7 million in wind farm revenue it received the past two years, Superintendent Cliff McClure said.

"In this day and age of finances and sometimes unreliable funding, we literally stuck it in the bank and operated our school," McClure said. "We always are financially prudent. Every dollar you get, you have to watch how you budget that. You always have to consider if that money will be there tomorrow."

At the community college level, where state funding also tends to be unpredictable, DACC used its approximately $276,000 "in getting back to even," said VP/finance Tammy Clark-Betancourt.

 

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For the Rankin Fire Protection District, wind farms mean more than approximately $50,000 in annual revenue — used in part to buy 14 air packs and a used truck, from East Lynn.

Having turbines nearby also allows his team to engage in some unique training drills, says Rankin Fire Chief Shane Diskin, who has held in-case-of-emergency sessions at a turbine in Paxton.

"We trained to rescue," he said. "If something happens to someone at the top of the tower, it's totally different than if we were going to a regular building fire. There are electrical hazards."

Rural townships get sizable tax checks, too.

Compromise Township, in Champaign County, got $120,000 in two years from California Ridge, with some of that money going toward general road and bridge work and a permanent road fund. Pilot Township, in Vermilion County, received about $266,000 over the same time.

With the motor fuel tax revenue frequently in decline, Compromise Supervisor Michael Babb said the township is more reliant on tax revenue for road improvements.

• • • • •

For Champaign County, the $60,000 in annual wind farm revenue is "nice," as Treasurer John Farney put it, "but a drop in the bucket" in the grand scheme of a $115 million budget.

In Vermilion County, it means much more.

The presence of wind farms has allowed that county to keep its tax rates low — "and lessen them even," Treasurer Darren Duncan said.

"Wind farms are among the top 10 taxpayers in Vermilion County," he added. "In our county, revenue and economic development have been stagnant. So they're a blessing there."

What both Vermilion and Champaign counties have in common, though, is the way the tax bills vary from turbine to turbine, land parcel to land parcel. Sometimes by just a few dollars at a time.

One parcel in the California Ridge Wind Farm, for example, pays $1,971.24 annually to the Champaign County government. Another pays $1,965.16. Another, $2,029.60.

Sasha Green, tax extension specialist with Champaign County, explained that variations in taxing districts make those totals different. They're based on different assessed values, which can vary by just a few hundred dollars. But they're all meant to be about the same.

 

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Ford County's vast swaths of open farmland are a gem to wind farm developers.

When it comes to getting a farm up and running, an area's wind speed is every bit as meaningful as cost.

Typically, areas with annual average wind speeds around 6.5 meters per second and greater, at heights of about 80 meters, are generally considered to be suitable for development. Throughout Ford County, wind speeds are between 7 and 7.5 meters per second.

Erin Baker, of Apex Clean Energy, said developing a project can cost anywhere from $2 million to $5 million, with construction adding another $300 million to $500 million. In general, a big project can create anywhere from 100 to 150 jobs during construction, with 15 to 25 needed to operate the farm once it's finished, she said.

For now, Ford is off-limits to future development, pending a decision by county officials.

A 120-day moratorium that was initially approved in October 2017 was extended indefinitely and, at the insistence of board member Tim Nuss of rural Roberts, the ban won't be lifted until the board approves a revised ordinance regulating wind farms.

The moratorium was prompted by complaints from residents in the Kempton area, who claimed their television reception was disrupted by a wind farm built in that area.

One change being considered for the county's wind-farm ordinance addresses that issue specifically.

• • • • •

Spotty cable service isn't the only concern cited by rural residents as more and more turbines go up throughout the area.

One of Cindy Ihrke's fears was about the potential loss of wildlife, with some studies showing that wind farms can drive away animals.

Ihrke runs a dog training facility and game hunting preserve in Ford County. When she received postcards from a local developer asking to site a turbine on her property, she started doing research. What she found made her answer an adamant "no."

"There's a lot that can happen with a structure that tall," she said. "Ice can get thrown off. The blades themselves can fly off."

She admitted that, given wind farms' far-flung location, the vast majority of people in any given county are not affected directly.

"But if it happens to a few people, then those few people are more important to protect than anything else," she said.

By her calculations, if Pattern Energy and Apex Clean Energy are allowed to build proposed new farms in Ford, "90 percent of our county will be covered by wind farms."

As for the tax revenue they generate, she rightly pointed out that they depreciate over a period of 25 years. Every year, there will be less and less, she said, adding: "I don't think that the county getting a large sum of money is worth someone moving their home."

• • • • •

That's precisely what happened to Deanne Sims, when California Ridge was being built — seemingly right on top of her house, she said.

She lives in Champaign now, but she still remembers the dust, traffic and the seemingly interminable construction.

"Whatever they were using to spray the roads was building up in the wheels of my car," she said. "Within a six-week period, we had to have the wheels taken off and rotated twice to get all the build-up washed off."

Apex's Baker explained that turbines are placed strictly within land owned by someone with a lease agreement. There are also setback requirements, and ones regulating the amount of noise, as well.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, noise generated by turbines is in the range of 35 to 45 decibels at a distance of 1,148 feet, about the same distance in both the Vermilion and Champaign county ordinances.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes a noise level of 40 decibels as equal to that of a running stream or the hum of a refrigerator.

"Over time, you don't notice them anymore," said Brad Knight, who lives and farms near Collison and isn't terribly bothered by the turbines nearby. "I will say, when the wind is east, there is a lot of noise. And I do experience some of that shadow flicker, too. Lasts about a month early in the morning and then in the afternoon. But the noise and that have never been a problem."

He also touted the benefits the tax revenue for his local school district, Armstrong.

"I don't think there's 130 kids in there," he said. Wind farms "are making it possible to keep the doors open. Before, it was a question of: Would they be better off at a different school?"