Kane Flips Switch On New Solar Field For Nearly 50% Of Judicial Center, Jail Energy Needs

Shaw Local News Network: By Brenda Schory

Jodie Wollnik, Director of Kane  county Environmental  and Water Resources  speaks about the solar field project at the Kane County Judicial Center in St. Charles, on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023.
Jodie Wollnik, Director of Kane County Environmental and Water Resources speaks about the solar field project at the Kane County Judicial Center in St. Charles Township, on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Jeff Knox/Daily Herald Media Group)

ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – Under an overcast sky with a brisk fall breeze Oct. 20, Kane County officials gathered in front of a 6-foot-tall switch plate cover the size of a door centered by an equally oversized light switch.

If the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” had electricity, that structure would be about the size of his light switch.

But this was a prop that Kane County Board Chair Corinne Pierog and board member Mavis Bates, D-Aurora, used to turn on – that is, flip the switch – on 4,200-plus solar panels installed at the Kane County Judicial Center.

“Today is a great day for Kane County,” said Bates, who is chair of the Energy and Environmental Committee. “We are taking a giant step forward as a leader in Illinois’ campaign to create an economy based on clean, green, renewable energy.”

The solar field will provide 47% of the Judicial Center and adjacent jail’s energy use, a savings of $200,000 a year over the 25-year life of the panels for a savings of $5 million.

The idea, which originated in her committee in April 2021, finally came to fruition last week, made possible by the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. Bates credited Gov. JB Pritzker’s leadership and the lobbying efforts of the Illinois Environmental Council and the Illinois Sierra Club with getting the legislation approved.

“This historic legislation set ambitious goals for Illinois,” Bates said. “In order to help combat the most destructive and expensive effects of climate change, we are pledged to reach 40% renewable energy by 2030 and 50% by 2040, all the while controlling costs for energy customers.”

A new solar field at the Kane County Judicial Center in St. Charles, consisting of 4,200 solar panels, was officially opened on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023.
A new solar field at the Kane County Judicial Center in St. Charles, consisting of 4,200 solar panels, was officially opened on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (Jeff Knox/Daily Herald Media Group)

The solar field did not have any upfront costs. It is leased to GRNE Solar of Palatine, which owns and will operate it.

Bates thanked Director of Environment and Water Resources Jodie Wollnik, solar developer GRNE Solar, resources manager Ivy Klee, Arnie Schramel of Progressive Business Solutions for assisting in the request for proposals process, Kane County Sheriff Detective Edward Catich for assisting with electrical knowledge and coordination with the jail complex, Chief Judge Clint Hull for allowing his parking lot to be used as a staging area for solar equipment and panels, Chief Operating Officer Henry Thompson for site coordination and Chief Information Officer Roger Fahenstock, who assisted with shutdown procedures and project management oversight.

“The world is a little bit greener, a little bit safer from climate change and a better place for future generations because of your willingness to take this giant step,” Bates said. “Yay Kane County! And yay solar!”

The county’s second solar project

Jeremy Hoerauf, senior commercial project manager of Nelnet Renewable Energy, said more than 100 people worked on-site for 519 days to create the county’s solar energy field.

“We’ve moved over 42,000 cubic yards of dirt. There used to be a very large hill behind us,” Hoerauf said. “It hasn’t been an easy effort, but we are there – finally. There’s 4,200-plus panels on-site. They are each 655 watts apiece and they are top of the line panels, the best you can get on the market right now. … That is about 1.8 megawatts of energy and that will produce in year one over 4 million kilowatt hours of energy.”

To put it in perspective, Hoerauf said that would provide power to 383 houses.

A kilowatt is a measure of the rate of electricity used. A megawatt equals 1 million watts or 1,000 kilowatts.

Wollnik said the Kane County Board passed the Operational Sustainability Plan in 2013 and her department has worked to make its facilities as green as possible.

“This plan was intended to work with Kane County facilities and all of our campuses to ensure we are doing the best practices when it comes to sustainability and reducing our greenhouse gas contributions,” Wollnik said.

The solar field is the county’s second solar facility, Wollnick said. The first one was installed at the Animal Control Facility on a much smaller scale. The Judicial Center and jail were targeted for this solar project because they are high energy users, she said.

Other continuing green initiatives are the conversion of lighting to LED, the expansion of the vehicle fleet to electric and the installation of electric vehicle charging stations at various facilities, Wollnik said.

“The only thing that would make it better would be if the sun was actually shining today,” Wollnik said.

‘I’ll tell you how the sun rose’

Pierog said even with cloud cover, there is still enough sun to power the solar panels.

“Solar is just one part of that bigger equation toward a better environment – an environment that is cleaner, where the air is fresher, the flowers smell sweeter and our trees grow a little bit stronger,” Pierog said.

In addition to expanding the county’s fleet to electric vehicles, Pierog said the county is on the forefront of exploring hydrogen as a clean energy source as one of seven hubs chosen in the U.S.

“Since Illinois is now selected as a hydrogen hub, we’ll be tapping into those resources to the tune of about $1 billion that will be distributed throughout Illinois,” Pierog said.

Pierog quoted from a poem by Emily Dickinson, “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose.”

“I’ll tell you how the sun rose/A ribbon at a time.

The steeples swam in amethyst/The news, like squirrels, ran.

The hills untied their bonnets/The bobolinks began.

Then I said softly to myself: That must have been the sun.”

“So the sunshine is going to power Kane County’s Judicial Center. The sun is going to continue to warm our heart,” Pierog said. “And the sun is going to save Kane County residents one heck of a lot of money. It’s three wins for Kane County: Using renewable energy sources, reducing our electric bill and becoming more energy independent. And you know what? This is just the beginning.”