There's a remarkable metamorphosis under way in rural America, aided in part by the nation's unquenchable thirst for energy, a desire for energy independence and the recently approved federal energy bill with all of its subsidies and tax credits.
Rural America, including central Illinois, is becoming a center for energy production. Nearly every day brings news of a plan to build a wind farm or an ethanol plant on the prairie. Last week, an Indiana firm announced that it would build a 100-million-gallon ethanol plant in Royal. And in Woodford County, a Minnesota company acknowledged that it had contacted landowners about leasing farmland for another giant wind energy project, one with as many as 80 energy-producing turbines.
Central Illinois is a focus of this development because of its resources: some natural, some manmade. Wind farms can be a boon in some parts of the area because of wind patterns and topography, the availability of open spaces and access to electric transmission lines. Ethanol plants seem to be a good fit for the area because of the 2 billion bushels or so of corn grown each year in Illinois, the existence of a network of railroad lines – some here for 150 years – and the presence of the Mahomet Aquifer deep below central Illinois.
Together, these technologies (it would be wrong to call them new technologies) can reinvigorate rural Illinois, increasing the value of crops, bringing new jobs, improving local economies and helping taxing districts, particularly schools.
But they are not without costs, and that's why local officials can't blindly embrace just the economic benefits of these developments. This is a time for optimism, leavened with caution. The effect on the natural environment, including precious water resources, birds and other wildlife, soil and land use patterns, must be considered. Likewise, the manmade environment, including roads and other infrastructure, must not be overlooked.
These are exciting times for rural Illinois; dozens of other ethanol plants and wind farms are under consideration across Champaign County and the central part of the state. But we should be careful to guard the natural resources and even the manmade systems that predate us, and which we hope to leave protected for many more generations.