No guarantees in solar approval process


OREGON – Farmers have a new option when it comes to field use.

It is not a new crop that doesn’t grow, but it does need the sun.

It is solar power, and across the state there is growing interest in “planting” solar panels on farm land.

But the process is far from simple or quick in Illinois. And in Ogle County, there is still a moratorium on new solar developments until August at least.

Before the moratorium, a total of eight solar farm special use permits were approved with a total acreage of 382, according to Mike Reibel, planning & zoning administrator for the Ogle County Planning & Zoning department.

So, how does the process work? It starts with a landowner, in most cases a farmer, deciding to develop some land for solar. A solar development company will lease the land for a solar farm, which will be run by a solar company. That company must apply for a special use permit so the farm land can be used for solar power creation.

The process starts with the Regional Planning Commission, which is advisory. Next, the Zoning Board of Appeals will hold a hearing on the proposed special use. The solar company will present a case saying why the use should be approved. Those in opposition can also speak.

These hearings can last hours at times.

“It is a quasi-judicial proceeding,” Reibel said.

Like the Regional Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals also makes a recommendation to approve or deny the special use permit.

All of the paperwork and recommendations then got the County Board for approval.

“The process typically runs between two and three months,” Reibel said.

Things have been slowed down further, as the County Board has a moratorium on new solar developments in place until the end of February. The board voted for the moratorium in August.

That gave the county time to look at specific rules governing solar developments in the county, including screening and decommissioning.

But even when the moratorium expires, the process is not a simple one.

“The process typically runs between two and three months,” Reibel said of the hearings in the county.

But that is really just the start. After all of the hearings, if a solar development gets a special use permit in the county, it still has to be chosen in a state lottery. Only a specific number of megawatts being produced from solar plants across the state will be allowed. So even if a company goes through the process, it might not be selected in the state lottery.

“The demand is far exceeding the amount of power that is available,” Reibel said.

Somewhere between one to three of 10 developments that apply will get picked.

And those can be either community solar garden developments or larger, utility-scale developments. Most of the proposed developments in Ogle County are the smaller community garden type, which produce 2 megawatts of power. That power can be purchased by people in the ComEd service area, who will in turn get a credit for using renewable energy.

The larger plants produce power that goes directly to the grid.

Currently, there are no solar farms up and running in Ogle County, and only a handful statewide.