Iowa windmills could blow in energy savings for Chicago area residents

Written By BY HANNAH LUTZ Sun-Times Media Posted: 04/21/2014, 02:18am
Array MAP: Rock Island Clean Line wind-power plan

Within three years, some Chicago area residents could be saving money on their electric bills, thanks to power generated 500 miles away.

The $2 billion Rock Island Clean Line would take 3,500 megawatts of power created by thousands of wind turbines in Iowa and deliver it to Illinois. The project could be completed by 2017.

“As a nation [we] are moving toward renewable energy resources. We need a grid that reflects where those energy sources are found,” said Hans Detweiler, director of development for the project.

Regulators in both states still must approve the plan.

The privately funded project by Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners would extend from O’Brien County, Iowa to Channahon in Grundy County, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago.

The power would travel on a transmission line held up by 2,000 to 3,000 towers, 110 to 140 feet high. It would hook up to the regional grid serving Illinois, 12 other states and the District of Columbia.

Wind-generated electricity could help Illinois meet renewable energy standards. By law, one-fourth of the energy used in Illinois must come from renewable sources by 2025.

Power from the Clean Line could supply 1.4 million homes, its builders estimate.

And there is demand for renewable energy sources. Some Chicago suburbs seek out green energy through a process called “aggregation,” in which the suburb buys green energy in bulk for the community and passes along the savings, if any.

In Evanston, aggregation saved the average household $264 in its first year, said Jonathan Nieuwsma, vice president of Citizens for Greener Evanston.

“Wind energy is remarkably cheap — going green is a no-brainer for us and I’m surprised more communities aren’t doing the same thing,” Nieuwsma said.

Adding wind energy to the grid should push wholesale electricity prices down, Detweiler said. He thinks Illinois consumers could save about $320 million after the line’s first year.

“Wind is stranded because of a lack of transmission lines,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, which represents the interests of utility customers in Illinois.

The Clean Line, he added, “has the potential to bring in a lot of low-cost power.”

The savings suggested by Detweiler are an estimate, but “there’s no question that it would reduce prices in Illinois,” Kolata said.

Clean Line still must obtain rights to build from landowners along the route.The company would pay landowners 90 percent of the per-acre value, Detweiler said, as well as $6,000 or $18,000 per tower, depending on size.

Farmers at the Iowa end of the line would choose the turbines to be built on their land. The towers holding the turbine blades are typically 260 feet tall. The tip of the blades can reach 400 to 500 feet above the ground.

In all, up to 2,000 turbines would be needed.

John Dollinger, who owns property in Grundy County along the line’s proposed route, likes the project because the power comes from a renewable source.

“A big part of the farm economy goes toward making fuels from corn,” he said. “We need to support other alternatives.”

From a brochure Clean Line sent Dollinger a few months ago, he has only a rough idea of how much he’d be paid. He thinks he will be treated fairly, “But until I see the numbers, it’s hard to say for sure,” he said.

Some landowners aren’t so sure. The Illinois Landowner Alliance was founded in 2012 to prevent state approval of the Clean Line. It has about 320 members, including about 200 landowners along the proposed route.

Five or six transmission towers could be built on Paul Marshall’s property in downstate LaSalle County, “right through the middle of my farm,” said Marshall, a board member of the Landowner Alliance.

The towers holding up the line rest on concrete bases that are six to eight feet across and sunk 25 to 50 feet into the ground. Smaller towers have one base, and larger towers use two.

A lot of trucks would be needed to pour that much concrete and then deliver the metal to build the towers, Marshall said. Marshall worries the trucks could compact the soil and damage his drainage system, he said.

But Beth Soholt, executive director of Wind on the Wire, a group promoting wind energy, supports the Clean Line as a way to take advantage of a renewable resource.

“If you are a farmer, you have roads to deliver your crops. The delivery system for renewable energy is congested,” she said. “The benefit for the public good outweighs the negative things.”

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