Why has Sunpin's Kewanee solar farm plan been put on 'simmer'?

Mike Helenthal
Star Courier
Exelon's Byron Generating Station is pictured in Ogle County. The company has said it would close Byron and another plant by the end of the year without further state aid.

Sunpin Solar had expected by now to already be putting up solar panels on property just west of Kewanee to create a 136-acre solar energy farm it signed a 35-year lease-option agreement for in 2019.

More:Kewanee City Council OKs solar farm

But the only thing standing on the Lininger Industrial Park now are tall grass and weeds, and plans for the solar farm's construction have been put on hold.

More:Pritzker urges lawmakers to act on energy bill

That's because the project can't exist without language contained within Illinois' proposed energy legislation, and that legislation was stalled this spring following a legislative impasse.

"Just like many others throughout the State of Illinois, Sunpin is anxiously awaiting action from the Illinois General Assembly and the Governor on energy legislation so that the entire energy community can move forward investing in Illinois’ future," Sunpin officials said in a statement to the Star Courier after being asked about the status of the project.

Company spokesman Samuel Dionne said in a phone interview the language specific to Sunpin would allow the trading of energy credits across state lines. That is the crux of what Sunpin intends to do as it would supply the power to the Ameren electrical infrastructure, but another energy user in another part of the country could purchase those energy credits in exchange for being able to report  "green" power sources as part of its energy portfolio.

Since the energy bill hasn't passed, Sunpin won't initiate the Power Purchase Agreement to carry that strategy out, which is the key to the whole project being economically viable. The company, meanwhile, has received every other state-level approval necessary for licensing.

"We've been following this legislation and everyone in the industry is following it," Dionne said. "It will greatly impact all solar development in the state."

As for progress on finding a PPA partner, "We are still working on it," he said.

But progress in state politics is another issue. Legislators have passed scores of bills in 2021  but couldn't push the energy bill through. In June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker offered a so-called compromise bill that also didn't get enough support to pass.

"Time is running out," said Sen. Sue Rezin, co-chair of the energy committee, on passing legislation in time this year for solar- and wind-energy companies to claim incentives offered under the state's Renewable Portfolio Standards.

She said renewing RPS would allow alternative energy companies to access millions of dollars in incentives collected from the state's rate-payers, money which is earmarked for those "green" developments. But the deadline for the fund expires Aug. 31, she said, which would send the money from that fund back to rate-payers.

"It would allow them to receive the incentives that they invested in," she said, referring to those who have financially backed state alternative energy projects.

That's also the date that legislators have been called back into session, but all indications are that the energy bill won't be brought up. And Rezin said she also doubts that Democrats will parcel the RPS separately and try to pass the whole package.

"He did not mention any other emerging legislation," Rezin said of Senate President Don Harmon's (D-39) Friday announcement of the session. "You would need all of the components of this bill to get it to pass and I haven seen anything close to a final bill."

The bill Pritzker is pushing would put Illinois on a path to 100 percent emission-free power production by 2050. It includes nearly $700 million over five years in subsidies to keep Exelon’s fleet of nuclear power plants open, incentives for the development of more wind and solar generation and a scheduled phase-out of most coal-fired plants by 2035 and natural gas plants by 2045.

As part of a compromise, Pritzker also proposed allowing Springfield’s City Water Light and Power facility and Metro East’s Prairie State Energy Campus to remain open through 2045, provided they could find a way to capture at least 90 percent of their carbon emissions.

That legislation stalled during the spring session, in part because some lawmakers did not want to be portrayed as doing a favor for Exelon and its scandal-ridden subsidiary Commonwealth Edison. But there were also substantive disagreements between labor and environmental groups over the phase-out of fossil fuel plants, especially two large coal-fired plants in Springfield and the Metro East area near St. Louis.

Exelon, meanwhile, has announced plans to close its Byron Generating Station in September and its Dresden Generating Station by November, arguing they are too unprofitable to keep online. Together, those plants employ about 1,500 workers.

Rezin said the problem with Pritzker's plan is that it lurches the state toward a green energy transition too quickly, which she predicts would significantly increase power rates for residents and make the Illinois power grid less reliable. She said some provisions strangle natural gas use even as coal is phased out, a position she said would expose the state to vulnerability.

She said the Illinois Chamber of Commerce predicts the governor's plan would increase rates by 20 percent and the rapid reduction of traditional of carbon-energy choices would make keeping the lights on and the Illinois economy running on all cylinders all the more challenging.

"(With Pritzker's plan) you would have a major reliability problem," she said. "That's what happens when you don't enough power generators online. The sun only shines for solar 20 percent of the time and the wind doesn't always blow."

She said Republicans realize the state is moving to an energy plan that includes non-carbon alternatives, but she said they have argued that it should be done more cautiously.

"It's really the time frame that's the sticking point," Rezin said. "The governor has chosen to support the green environmentalists."

Sen. Win Stoller (R-37), who is not on the energy committee, agreed with Rezin that rates would likely go up and reliability would be impacted if the Pritzker bill were to be approved.

"I know that's not something I'd be willing to support," he said, despite that vote affecting local projects like the Kewanee solar farm.

He said the energy legislation is "vitally important" but said rushing it through to the detriment of power consumers would lead to economic disaster.

"We have to do it in a way we can rely on and be able to pay for it, and we have to do it in a way that we can rely on," he said, holding out hope that something will change and the legislation makes it to a vote because its effects are so far-reaching.

Sunpin will be waiting and hoping as well.

"Hopefully they'll get a bill passed," Sunpin's Dionne said. "They've been working in it for a long time and there are a lot of people who are eager to see what's going on."

Kathy Albert, director of the Kewanee Economic Development Corporation, which owns Lininger, declined to comment for this story, except to say KEDC continues to assist Sunpin work through the process.

Illinois Capitol News's Peter Hancock contributed to this story.