Empowering rural Illinois

Any new industry comes with a broad knowledge base to learn and new industry jargon to understand — and wind energy is especially challenging. This is where the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs’ (IIRA) wind energy program plays a vital role in Illinois. IIRA seeks to improve the quality of life for rural residents by partnering with public and private agencies on local development and enhancement efforts.

IIRA has a dedicated wind outreach program in order to empower rural communities and residents to make comprehensive decisions about the feasibility and scope of wind energy development. The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF) and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) solely fund IIRA’s wind outreach programs.

Along with public outreach, IIRA operates the state’s only wind resource assessment program with its own meteorological towers that collect wind speeds, temperature and wind direction data at sites rotated throughout Illinois. This data is then made available to the public via our website at www.illinoiswind.org.

Another facet of IIRA’s wind energy outreach program is public policy research. As the state’s academic clearinghouse for rural development data and initiatives, IIRA met the needs of local government officials and rural residents by conducting statewide research of counties’ wind ordinances. The most recent update was completed in July 2011 and is available on www.illinoiswind.org through the Online Resources tab under Zoning. The website contains an executive summary of the research with a coordinating state map, matrices of the small- and utility-scale ordinances and contact information for all county zoning officials in Illinois.

Many of the questions I receive when giving presentations on wind energy focus on the different scales and sizes of wind projects. The common industry definition of wind energy projects is sized by a turbine’s capacity rating. Small-scale wind is commonly defined as a single wind turbine installation of 100 kilowatts (kW) and less. Small wind projects typically produce power for on-site electrical use, such as homes, farms, schools and small businesses.

The next level of a wind energy project is community-scale which refers to the method and intention of development rather than the size of the project. A wind project could be classified as both small and community scale. Windustry defines this sector as a community-owned asset. Examples of community-scale wind projects in Illinois include the City of Geneseo, Adams Electric Cooperative, Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative and others.

The number of community-scale wind projects has increased in recent years due to the funding programs of the ICECF and DCEO. An example of a project candidate would be a public school district making energy efficient improvements and investigating renewable energy sources to reduce utility costs and become more self-sufficient in the wake of the uncertain economic climate.

Our newest outreach program is Illinois Wind for Schools (ILWFS), a program designed to incorporate wind energy topics into the classroom. Slated to begin during the upcoming 2012-2013 school year, ILWFS will offer curriculum development resources, teacher professional development, on-site technical assistance, and instructional equipment to Middle School and High School teachers across the state. This initiative is a partnership of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and the Department of Engineering Technology at Western Illinois University, and the Center for Renewable Energy and College of Education at Illinois State University.

Training, curriculum, and equipment will be offered at no charge to schools selected for the program, made possible through DCEO grant funding. Middle School and High School teachers in Illinois public school districts who are excited to teach project-based learning curriculum and have an interest in cross-curriculum implementation are encouraged to apply by March 1, 2012. For more information and to access the application form, visit www.ilwfs.org.

The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, located at Western Illinois University, promotes improvement of the quality of life in rural areas by developing public-private partnerships with local agencies concerning small business development and community development projects. For more information about IIRA’s programs, visit www.iira.org or call (800) 526-9943.

Jolene Willis is Wind Energy Program Coordinator for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University and provides outreach to rural communities on wind energy.