Count Gibson City's mayor among those sold on solar

Count Gibson City's mayor among those sold on solar

GIBSON CITY — The eight 300-watt solar panels installed on the east side of Dan Dickey's property at 112 E. 12th St. have saved him an estimated 20 to 30 percent on his monthly electricity bills.

The 2,400 watts of power they can generate is run through conduit under his driveway to the inside of his garage, where the power is converted to AC electricity and then stored on 64 acid-free, saltwater batteries.

It's enough power to run a freezer in his garage, a washer and dryer, two refrigerators, a sump pump and a television.

Dickey said he spent between $12,000 and $15,000 on his off-grid solar-energy system, and it has slowly been paying for itself ever since.

"I don't know if it will ever pay for itself, but we're saving probably 20 to 30 percent on our electric bill," Dickey said. "And the cool thing is when the power goes out, I've still got my own power."

Dickey, the city's mayor, said he installed the solar-energy system a few years ago, when Gibson City had no official rules in place for doing so.

"I went to the city and got a permit, but it was basically just a standard building permit because there was nothing that specified anything about solar," Dickey said. "So when I was given the permit, it was basically under the standard building codes."

Since that time, the interest in solar energy has picked up not just in Gibson City but around the state, prompting Dickey to look into creating an ordinance to regulate "solar gardens" — which he said are solar energy systems of up to 2 gigawatts — and larger "solar farms."

"We decided we need something more specific," Dickey said, "because we believe this is coming. Just look at California; they're going to require (solar systems) on new construction, I think, starting in 2020."

For several months, Dickey has been working with industry leaders and installers, as well as City Attorney Marc Miller, to draft an ordinance for solar-energy systems, as well as smaller, residential wind turbines, he said. And in early November, the proposed ordinance will be considered by Gibson City's planning commission and city council.

Public hearings regarding the ordinance will be held by both entities the next two Mondays.

'Makes us more resilient'

Currently, there are no rules in place for regulating solar systems or wind turbines on properties within city limits. Dickey said he hopes having an ordinance will help encourage residents and business owners to install solar systems or wind turbines on their homes or their land.

"I want people in Gibson City and basically everywhere ... to be more self-sufficient," he said. "It just makes us more resilient. If you're creating 20 to 30 percent of your own power — or it could be even more — that's more money that you keep in your pocket, or that's more money that you can spend locally at a business or more money that you can save for retirement."

Under the proposed ordinance, Gibson City would have a permitting process in place for solar energy systems or residential wind turbines.

Gibson City landowners would apply for construction permits under the ordinance, paying a fee to the city that ranges in price depending on the size and scope of the project, Dickey said.

Under the proposed ordinance, solar gardens would be classified as solar projects of up to 2 gigawatts, and anything larger than that would be classified as a solar farm, Dickey said. The ordinance would also set parameters for residential wind turbines, which, Dickey noted, are much smaller versions of the skyscraping turbines dotting the rural landscape of Ford County.

"I'm talking about something that's not even 20 feet tall," Dickey said. "Some of those are very quiet, and they're not obtrusive — there's no shadow flicker."

The ordinance would regulate solar and wind-energy projects within the city's zoning jurisdiction of 11 / 2 miles of city limits, Dickey said. Larger solar projects — specifically solar farms — would need to be located outside of the city, because there is no space for them within the city.

"We want to be considerate of our neighbors, and we also have got to keep room to grow," Dickey said. "We have plans to grow our community, and so you don't want everything to be filled in with solar (farms) because there wouldn't be room left for the development of more residences or businesses."

Two gardens proposed

Two solar gardens, each about 15 to 18 acres in size, have already been proposed in Gibson City, Dickey said.

One would be located on city-owned farmland just north of the fishing pond at the Jordan Industrial Park on the west edge of town. The other would be located on city-owned farmland south of the wastewater-treatment plant in the southwest corner of town. Both projects would "not be even close" to any residences, Dickey noted.

The city council needs the proposed ordinance in place in order to approve both of those projects, Dickey said. But even if the council gives its formal approval, the city still will not be guaranteed to have either project built, since each will need to first go through a "lottery system" required by the state as part of the state's "community solar" program, Dickey noted.

Thanks in large part to the terms of the Future Energy Jobs Act, Illinois Power Agency Director Anthony Star will oversee a lottery in January in which solar developers get a chance at contracts that ultimately net them renewable energy credits that they can sell. Utilities, like Ameren Illinois, then can buy the credits, which represent an amount of energy generated through environmentally friendly means. Sales of such credits help developers afford their projects, so if they don't get such credits right away, they may put their projects on hold.

Dickey said his city has already turned in applications to the state for the two solar gardens planned in Gibson City. If approved, the city would lease the land at the two sites to Chicago-based Carbon Solution Group, which would pay the city $900 per acre every year. City Superintendent Randy Stauffer said the city currently leases the ground for agricultural use for only $200 per acre.

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit wbrumleve@news-gazette.com.

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