St. Clair County green lights huge solar energy farm project

By Bill Dwyer for Chronicle Media

The St. Clair County Board approved a solar energy project using long banks of photovoltaic cell panel arrays similar to these in and around St. Libory and Mascoutah.

The St. Clair County Board on Aug. 28 approved an expansive, 150-megawatt solar energy project that will eventually generate enough electricity to power between 30,000 and 35,000 homes annually.

The Bee Hollow “Commercial Solar Energy Facility” or CSEF, is also projected to generate $16 million in taxes over the expected 25 years of operation.

Construction on the CSEF is expected to begin this fall on four agricultural parcels in and around St. Libory and Mascoutah, with operations and maintenance functions located on State Route 15 in Mascoutah. The overall amount of the land involved is approximately 1,800 acres, with 950 acres directly involved in energy generation.

Unless explicitly approved by the St. Clair County Building and Zoning Administrator, construction activity will be limited to Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., with no work allowed on holidays.

When completed, the facility will generate solar power from long banks of photovoltaic cell panel arrays that are 18 feet tall.

Officials from Bee Hollow said they will maintain the quality of the ground soil of the 950 acres over the life of the CSEF and will return it to agricultural use at the end of the CSEF’s life span.

While 18 County Board members voted yes, there was division on the board; four members voted no, one voted “present” and another abstained. Four members were absent.

Representatives of the St. Clair County Board did not respond to requests for comment prior to Chronicle Media’s deadline. However, at an Aug. 1 hearing before the St. Clair County Board of Appeals, a dozen people spoke in opposition to the project, citing an array of concerns, including the project’s impact on property values, the number of trees needing to be removed, water runoff and the effect on well water, and other issues.

ZBA members were ultimately not swayed, and the motion passed 6-0. The ZBA issued several findings after its hearing, including that the project “adequately protects the public’s health, safety, and welfare,” will have minimal to no environmental impact and will not lower property values.

“There was credible expert testimony presented by the applicant that there will be no impact to neighboring property values despite local property owners claiming that the facility will have a negative impact on property values,” the ZBA’s secretary, Anne Markezich, noted in meeting minutes.

Even though the solar panels will be no more than 50 feet from “non-participating properties” adjacent to the facilities, the ZBA “strongly suggested” that Bee Hollow officials consider increasing setbacks to at least 150 feet, “where such can be done with minimal impact to the facility as a whole.”

Among those testifying in support of the CSEF were representatives of the Freeburg School District, and officials of the IBEW Local #309. Besides the projected tax benefits, supporters also lauded the project’s low environmental impact, including little noise and no “hazardous or noxious odors.”

In response to concerns over the loss of any trees cleared for the project, representatives from Bee Hollow LLC testified they had agreed to place two trees in a “tree bank” for every tree they remove during the construction phase.

The Bee Hollow project in St. Clair County is the latest in a series of renewable energy projects in Illinois. In January 2021, the Grundy County board approved a massive 2,700-acre, 300 Megawatt solar energy installation on agricultural land between Dwight and Gardner, approximately 90 miles southwest of Chicago.

That facility, which is expected to go online in October, is projected to provide energy for some 65,000 homes. As with the St. Clair County solar energy project, officials with Blue Sky Energy touted the expected tax revenues, saying they estimated the generation of $36 million in taxes over the 30- to 35-year life of the project.