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Simon says wind energy is a ‘beautiful thing’ 

Bureau County Republican
By Barb Kromphardt
June 1, 2012

COMPTON — Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon came prepared for her brief visit to the Shady Oaks wind farm north of Compton on Wednesday.

She brought her ears to listen to various wind farm officials and school administrators.

She also brought her tennis shoes, to improve her climb to the top of one of the turbines.

“I’m here mostly to listen and learn,” Simon said, addressing a small group of wind energy supporters and local school administrators.

Simon said she had not yet had the opportunity to visit a wind farm site.

“We all get to drive by them; we get to see the parts on their way in on the roads or the trains,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see, and so I wanted to learn a little bit more about the mechanics of it, particularly here where things are just coming online, and emphasize what a nice public-private cooperative thing we’ve got going on.”

The 109.5 megawatt Shady Oaks wind farm development began selling power to Commonwealth Edison Co. Friday. The wind farm is a result of an agreement that Gov. Pat Quinn announced during his trade trip to China last fall. Xinjiang Goldwind Science and Technology Co. LTD began construction of the $200 million wind farm last year. Goldwind purchased Shady Oaks from Irish developer Mainstream Renewable Power near the end of 2010.

The project supported 200 on-site construction jobs and 300 U.S. jobs overall, with 10 permanent operation and maintenance jobs anticipated. Simon said those jobs are going to help the local community.

“The jobs that are here, that are going to stay here, that employ folks who are here, it’s a nice package all the way around,” she said.

Three local school superintendents were on hand to tell Simon what wind energy will mean to their communities.

Money will begin flowing into the coffers of the Ohio High and Grade schools, the Amboy School District, and the Bureau Valley School District this summer from the Big Sky wind farm.

Ohio Superintendent Sharon Sweger said the 74 turbines in her districts will bring in about $935,000 in additional revenue this summer.

“At a time when there are state cuts, we have inflation, and we have new legislation that is putting more burdens on the schools, that money is going to come in very handy,” Sweger said.

Thirty-eight of Big Sky’s turbines are in the Amboy district, and Superintendent Jeff Thake said that will mean an additional $500,000 in new revenue.

But Thake said he is interested in more than just the money.

“The revenue for the school district is huge for us,” he said. “But the other thing it is doing is for our young people is creating jobs.”

Thake said a number of recent graduates are already working in the wind industry.

“What we want to do, ideally, is for those individuals to settle down in the communities they wish to stay in and actually send their kids to our schools,” he said.

Thake said one of the biggest problems facing small town America is declining enrollment and an increase in the percentage of low-income families; wind farms will help offset that.

“We need to find more creative avenues to generate revenue for the school districts, and this is definitely one of them,” he said.

There are only two Big Sky turbines in the Bureau Valley School District, but Superintendent John Bute is looking toward the Walnut Ridge and Green River wind farms planned for his district.

“They will make a massive difference provided that they both go through,” Bute said.

Bute said his district is currently facing a more than $1.1 million deficit.

“We need additional revenue,” he said. “We can’t continue to rely on the state to meet our needs.”

Also present at Wednesday’s meeting were Kevin Borgia, with the pro-wind organization Wind on the Wires, and Matt Boss of Mainstream Renewable Power. Boss said Mainstream was the original developer of Shady Oaks, and he was the project manager. Boss said Shady Oaks was able to move forward thanks to state and local support, and more state support is needed.

Specifically, Boss said he would like to see a few changes made to the Renewable Portfolio Standard. Under the Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standard established by lawmakers in 2007, Com Ed and Ameren Illinois must purchase at least 25 percent of Illinois energy from renewable sources by 2025. Three quarters of the renewable energy is to come from wind power.

Simon said that requirement is a good thing.

“It provides a little bit of certainty to folks in the industry, allows an investment of private capital, and then benefits all of us,” she said. “It’s a nice partnership all the way around.”

Simon said that discussions about wind farms that have been taking place at area county boards are important and need to continue.

“We need to know more about what’s going on and continue to study what the possible negative effects are,” she said. “But it’s pretty clear what some of the known positive effects are, particularly in an age where we can see our fossil fuels shrinking and getting even harder to get to, getting more costly in terms of environmental impact.

“We know about those costs, so it’s nice to be able to have an option or an alternative.”

So what did Sheila Simon think of her trip up the wind turbine?

“It was much more physically challenging than I thought it would be,” she said Thursday. “I was hot and sweaty and all tuckered out.”

Simon said she considers herself fairly athletic, and she and her husband had recently participated in a triathlon.

Simon said she enjoyed the opportunity to “pop the top” and stand on the top of the turbine, where she was amazed at the 360 degree view.

She also was glad to talk with the two technicians who assisted her in her climb, and to learn about their jobs.

Simon also learned there was an elevator — not yet installed — that would be used in the future to ascend the wind turbine.

“I thought maybe that would be the way to go next time,” she said with a laugh.