Alternative energy powers growth along I-39 corridor

ILLINOIS - When thinking of wind turbines, it's natural to picture the wide-open and windswept plains of the West. And when picturing rows of solar panels glinting in the sun, it's the cloud-free skies of the Southwest that come to mind.

But the Chicago area, with all its unpredictable weather and intermittent bouts of sunshine, features its own growing center of alternative energy research. Surprisingly enough, this hot spot for wind and solar power is just 80 miles west of Chicago.

Economic development officials along the I-39 corridor have tapped into the growing alternative energy field with investment in wind energy and solar power facilities.

"The counties along I-39 are very open for business and several of them are open to wind farm projects," says Janyce Fadden, executive director of the I-39 Logistics Corridor Association.

The corridor has spawned five significant wind farm deals since 2003.

The first of these was the $56 million Mendota Hills Wind Farm in Lee County near the village of Paw Paw. The latest to come on line, Chicago-based Invenergy LLC's Grand Ridge Wind Energy Center, is located just south of the town of Marseilles in LaSalle County. The total energy output of the 66 turbines is estimated at 315 million kilowatt hours per year, enough to power 33,000 single-family homes.

Three other projects have been approved and are either under construction or preparing to begin. NextEra Energy Resources plans to begin construction this year on a $400 million Wind Energy Center that straddles DeKalb and Lee Counties. Top Crop Wind Farm by Horizon Wind Energy, which is a unit of the Portuguese utility company, Energias de Portugal Renovaveis, S.A., has begun a project that will be built throughout Grundy and Livingston Counties. When completed, the farm will generate 600 megawatts per month.

To put that in perspective, Mendota Hills Wind Farm is capable of 51.66 megawatts per month, which enough to power about 13,000 homes.

And lastly, the 67-turbine EcoGrove Wind LLC Wind Farm in Stephenson County is nearly completed.

However, in the current political climate, it may be a safe bet that these will not be the last projects to find a home along the I-39 corridor. $16.8 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be appropriated for the Department of Energy's Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) programs and initiatives.

President Obama has made energy one of the three key initiatives in to his economic recovery plan.

Likewise, the State of Illinois has set specific standards that should engender more development in the near future. The state has pledged that 10 percent of its electricity will come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.

To ensure that more companies continue to pursue development opportunities, the state has guaranteed that energy from wind sources will be purchased by local providers.

"In Illinois, distribution is separate from production of power," says Fadden. "In northern Illinois, Com Ed is obligated to take power from Mendota Hills onto its grid. It can then buy it and resell it or someone somewhere else can buy it off the grid. Someone in California could be buying that power."

Wind farms are not the only developments to gain traction along the I-39 corridor. Seizing upon the momentum of alternative energy, the city of Rockford has recently completed a deal with Wanxiang, a Hangzhou-based Chinese company with U.S. headquarters in Elgin, to develop a manufacture plant for photovoltaic solar-energy panels. The first phase of the project would consist of a 40,000-square-foot facility, which could eventually be expanded to 160,000-square-feet. The facility is projected to employ 250 people.

The firm preformed a nationwide search before settling on Rockford, says Fadden.

The major incentive for Wanxiang is that the city agreed to build a 100-acre solar farm just south of the regional airport. The farm will use panels produced at the Wanxiang manufacturing facility. The solar farm will produce approximately 10 Megawatts of electric power, which is sufficient to supply 3,300 average residential homes.



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