Former Alcoa site being cleared for solar power project

News-DemocratMay 18, 2014 

BND

Giant earth-moving machines are clearing ground in East St. Louis for a planned "solar panel farm."

The 400-acre site is being cleared at an estimated cost of $19.5 million. It is located in a mixed-use area of East St. Louis where the former Alcoa plant had operated before closing about 60 years ago. The site is bounded on the north by Lake Drive, on the east by the Alton and Southern Railroad, on the south by Missouri Avenue and on the west by 29th Street.

The planned $65 million, 20-megawatt solar farm would be home to rows and rows of solar panels that would harness energy from the sun to generate enough electricity to power roughly 4,000 homes.

U.S. EPA spokesman Francisco Arcaute said Alcoa, the City of East St. Louis and the Alton and Southern Railroad are responsible for the cleanup, which will include a 2-foot soil cover over approximately 120 acres. He said each signed a consent decree in which the city has agreed to provide access and in kind services to both Alcoa and the railroad. The railroad is financing cleanup on the eastern part of the site, which the railroad owns. Alcoa is paying for cleanup on the rest of the site.

Construction began in March and is expected to continue through summer 2015. The project is being developed by Brightfields Development LLC, a Wellesley, Mass., company that has turned polluted properties into sites that produce renewable energy. Company principal Michael Singer said the solar farm development still hinges on a state bill that would require Ameren to buy power from the solar farm for 20 years, and Ameren Illinois would pass the cost along to consumers in the form of a rate increase of about 32 cents per customer per year.

Ameren Illinois spokeswoman Stacey Shangraw said this project is not the utility provider's initiative and that the company only delivers power purchased through the Illinois Power Authority.

"We're a delivery-only company," Shangraw said. "We just work with the IPA and purchase power through them. When we charge customers, it's a direct pass through. Any supply charges we charge is direct as goes back to supply. We don't make money on that."

Singer said, "Basically, we need the legislation to pass so we can finance a project for this size."

But the bill, which had passed through the Senate two years ago. But since January 2013, the legislation remains "sine die" -- without a scheduled meeting for action.

Singer said the solar farm is estimated to create about 600 jobs during the cleanup and construction. Once it's running, the farm would employ about 20 people.

"Our hope, in a perfect world, if everything is perfect, we would put panels in by 2015," he said. "As soon as remediation is completed, we would start solar construction. There is still a lot of moving and remediation out there at this time."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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