In a remarkable economic boon to central Illinois, the nation’s second-largest solar project is planned for Fulton County.
The $800 million Buckheart Solar Farm would operate on 8,000 acres of land south of Canton, producing 820 megawatts of energy, enough to power 118,000 homes.
The property is more valuable producing energy than
“It’s a very exciting project,” said Cole McDaniel, executive director of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development. “It’s trajectory changing.”
The project is being spearheaded by Israeli-based Doral Renewables, which operates 400 energy facilities in its home country and has branched out into the United States with several projects. It is behind the biggest U.S. solar farm, the $1.5 billion Mammoth Solar development under construction in northwest Indiana, where almost 3 million solar panels will occupy 13,000 acres and generate 1.65 gigawatts of electricity. (The world’s biggest solar farm is Bhadla Solar Park in India, which spans 14,000 acres and can produce 2.25 gigawatts of power.)
News of the project comes less than three years after tightened pollution regulations prompted Vistra Energy to shut down the coal-fired Duck Creek Power Station southeast of Canton, costing 90 jobs.
Buckheart Solar’s construction phase would bring 300 jobs to Fulton County. Long-term, the facility would employee 10 workers, plus local subtractors for site maintenance.
Neither McDaniel nor Doral would disclose the intended location of the project, citing ongoing leasing negotiations with multiple property owners. However, the solar farm is to be sited in Buckheart Township, south of Canton, said Jonathan Baker, Doral’s director of project and business development.
“Doral looks for several qualities when selecting a site,” Baker said. “These include available capacity on local transmission lines, open, privately owned landscape where projects can be sited, and local communities open to new investment. Buckheart met all of these criteria. The closure of Duck Creek coal power plant also meant existing infrastructure could be utilized without building new transmission lines.
“Once an area is selected, we begin negotiating with local landowners to see if they would like to voluntarily lease their property for solar farming. Often the solar farming includes agrivoltaics, whereby we graze livestock or cultivate various crops within and around the solar field. The initial response from local landowners and officials was positive, so Doral felt comfortable moving forward with preliminary studies and engineering.”
The targeted site consists of privately owned land, most of it agricultural. But the property is more valuable producing energy than growing crops, said McDaniel and Blake Murphy, Buckheart’s local representative.
“It’s going to help with tax revenue and the schools,” Murphy said.
The shuttering of Duck Creek cost Fulton County almost $2 million in yearly property taxes. In 2021, Fulton County’s total equalized assessed valuation of property was $634 million. A fully operational Buckheart Solar would boost that figure by more than 10 percent, to almost $700 million, McDaniel said.
That translates into a total of $120 million in added tax revenue — $4 million a year – over the expected 30-year lifespan of the facility.
When the 30-year leases end, the equipment will be recycled or reused, with the land returned to its original condition, according to Doral.
“The condition of the soil will be improved substantially due to the long resting period and the use of native vegetation under the panels,” the company said.
Doral expects to spend the next two years working with the state on permits. Construction would begin in 2024, with the farm producing power the following year.
McDaniel is investigating whether the project needs approval from the Fulton County Board. So far, McDaniel has heard no complaints about the project.
“We have only heard the benefits and the excitement surrounding the project to this point,” McDaniel said. “That could certainly change, but with the closure of the Duck Creek Power Station, many are excited and know what it means for Fulton County to get a project of this magnitude.”