GALESBURG — After hours of public hearings, the Knox County Zoning Board of Appeals made a crucial decision Wednesday afternoon regarding the fate of a wind farm planned for the county.
Orion Renewable Energy Group plans to start construction on the $150 million to $170 million wind farm, the first in Knox County, this year and hopes to have it operational by the end of 2021.
Final cost of the project will be based on the type of equipment purchased at the time of construction. Orion, based in Oakland, California, originally was looking at a 300-megawatt wind farm in 2018, but has since scaled that back to 150 megawatts.
The conditional use permits for the proposed 150-megawatt wind farm planned for northern Knox County received vigorous support and opposition, but ultimately were granted with four in favor and one abstaining vote.
The decision was partitioned into three votes: one regarding the height of the turbines, one regarding property setback, and another for the conditional use permit itself. All votes were split the same way, with four votes in favor and one abstention.
The vote came after days of contention, with arguments finishing up just before the vote on Wednesday.
Attorney Phillip Luetkehans made arguments regarding noise levels caused by the turbines and potential health impacts of the turbines, as well as objections to the manner in which the application for the wind farm had been completed.
Against Luetkehans’ argument came arguments in favor of the ability of wind to diversify the county’s energy portfolio with a renewable source, the potential of new jobs and improvement to rural roads around the turbines, as well as an alternative source of revenue for rural landowners. Eventually, after a short recession, the board had to make its decision.
ZBA Chairman John Durfee acknowledged that some people in the community “will not be happy if we approve this,” but noted that in his opinion, “the overall benefit outweighs the negative.”
The vote on height concerned an increase of the maximum allowable height of the proposed turbines from 500 to 600 feet and was passed on the grounds that newer technology for wind turbines favored the taller sizes.
Another request for a “setback variance” was passed that would allow turbines to be placed closer to the property lines of participating landowners who have consented to such a placement.
The final vote for the conditional use permit passed the project itself onto its next stage. A county committee will look at moving the permit forward to the full county board on Tuesday, May 19. Following that, the wind farm would need to be approved by the full Knox County Board on Wednesday, May 27.
“KCAP strongly supports this application, and we’re encouraged by the fact that the ZBA approved the application yesterday,” Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development President Ken Springer said.
As for when construction would begin on this project, Springer says that’s contingent on factors such as weather, but that the company has suggested they would finish constructing the wind farm at the end of 2021.