Centered around the land-grant campus of the University of Illinois, the six counties of Champaign, Ford, Piatt, Douglas, Vermillion, and Iriquois host over 5,000 farms. In Champaign County alone, over 75 percent of the land is comprised of farms over 500 acres in size. The vast majority of the six counties are served by Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, which buys 269GWh of power annually for its members. They purchase power from their parent, a generation and transmission (G&T) electrical cooperative named Prairie Power Inc, whose territory is shown in dark blue above. Over 62 percent of the power purchased by Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative comes from a coal-fired generation plant Prairie Power Inc built in 2012 in the southern part of the State, near the mouth of a coal mine. Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative also purchases a small amount of power from MISO, which is the Regional Transmission Operator for the area shown in light blue above.
In this hypothetical example, Eastern Illini Electrical Cooperative (EIEC) would build 55 TrackerSled dual-use farms on its members' property in the six-county area shown on the map above. On each farm, columns of TrackerSleds would rotate between two adjacent 12-acre fields.
Currently, six wind farms and one solar farm exist in EIEC's territory. In 2018, EIEC purchased power at $.08/kWh and sold it to members for an average of $.14/kWh. In this hypothetical example, the 55 dual-use TrackerSled farms would provide the entire 269GWh per year required by EIEC's members, as modeled by NREL's PV Watts application. Although complete autonomy would not be possible without storage in the near term, when the cost of battery storage drops sufficiently, EIEC can add batteries to time-shift energy delivery and optimize grid voltage and frequency.
Map data provided by the US Energy Information Administration
The proforma above summarizes how an electric co-op like EIEC can spend $2/Watt to build a 12-acre dual-use TrackerSled farm while selling power to its members at $.065/kWh to lower their electrical bills. The proforma contemplates paying each of the 55 farmers $16,800 annually for hosting Trackersleds for the duration of the 29-year lease.
Currently, Eastern Illini Electrical Cooperative views Distributed Energy Resources as a challenge, because most are behind-the-meter and owned privately. When EIEC loses kWh sales to private generation, fixed costs must be recovered by allocating them to members. Conversely, if EIEC builds their generation by deploying plug-n-play TrackerSleds on their members' farm fields, mutual benefits will compound while costs decrease. Leveraging existing USDA Rural Utilities Service programs, EIEC could receive grants and ultra-low-cost loans to build these new assets. Funds may also be available on the farmer's side, through the USDA's EQIP program that supports the regeneration of farmland.
When modeled in IMPLAN with data from 2018, every $3.50 the EIEC community directly invests in TrackerSled dual-use farms will result in an additional $1.12 of indirect and induced local economic benefits. The figures above illustrate the impact of the 55 TrackerSled farms in the six-county area only. Instead of members exporting their capital to remote places, the dollars will stay hyperlocal. Furthermore, the benefits listed above ignore any impacts resulting from the improved profitability of local farmers from regenerative practices. Since farmers will siphon back more of the food dollar from agrichemical companies, some of the revenue will be offset by losses elsewhere. But smaller farms will become viable again, creating even more jobs not reflected in the numbers above.
Not only will the TrackerSleds' clean energy supplant the carbon footprint of the energy produced at the existing downstate coal-fired power plant, but the 55 farmers will draw down immense amounts of carbon, too. When regenerative practices increase soil carbon by one percent on the 55 farms, an additional $142M to $72M will flow into the economy through carbon credits purchased at today's market rates, assuming an average farm size of 1,500 acres. Over time, this income could easily triple or quadruple, without accounting for the increased value of the farms' real estate. This also ignores the impact of regenerative practices spreading to the other 5,000 farms in the region.
Instead of out-of-town solar developers repurposing prime farmland in their territory, EIEC can give their farmer members a financial incentive to regenerate their best soils, avoiding the tendency to relegate solar to the margins. This practice will create a virtuous cycle in rural Illinois, benefiting People, the Planet, and Profit.
The 55 TrackerSled dual-use farms will create 989 job-years in the six-county area, predominantly in the construction and equipment manufacturing industries.
The greatest direct economic output resides with the equipment manufacturing industry, followed by the construction industry. The model assumes that the prefabricated TrackerSled components will be assembled in a central location in Champaign County.