Rock Falls has its own utilities, and that reality means the city operates differently from municipalities that do not.
The electric utility alone is now a more than $10 million annual enterprise. The presence of the utilities give the city a much different template for doing the city’s finances. For instance, in Sterling, much of the focus for budgeting is on the general fund. When Rock Falls prepares its budget, its finance committee divides the process into two parts - the general fund and the enterprise (utility) funds.
Historically, the revenues from its utilities have given the city more financial flexibility at a time when pensions and infrastructure needs are eating away at municipal general funds.
As a power distributor, Rock Falls also spends of great deal of time staying updated on the most efficient ways to deliver its utility services in a rapidly changing energy landscape. With its electric utility in particular, city officials treat it as the business it is. They belong to utility organizations and attend many state and national conferences to maximize the benefits of being a power supplier.
One of the organizations the city utilizes is the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency. The IMEA is a nonprofit made up of 32 municipal electric systems statewide - all of which own and operate its own electric distribution system. Rock Falls is a founding member of the organization that started in 1984, and is one of two members that also operate hydroelectric plants.
The city will now reap another benefit of its IMEA membership. The organization has chosen Rock Falls, Altamont and Naperville to host solar projects that will help IMEA bring more renewable energy into its portfolio. The cost falls to IMEA and the developers of the solar arrays.
In Rock Falls, construction on a 1-megawatt system will begin this summer at a site in the industrial park, behind the city’s electric department.
The IMEA solar projects are considered demonstration projects - the power initially generated will be minimal, but it allows municipal power generators like Rock Falls to experiment with adding solar directly to its distribution system. Its renewable capabilities can be quickly increased later.
The acreage in the industrial park being used for the project is wet land that has drawn little interest from companies for decades. Mayor Bill Wescott says the parcel would have brought $10,000 at best from a developer.
We admire the initiative the IMEA and Rock Falls is taking to diversify its energy sources. The state’s municipal utilities aren’t included in Illinois’ long-term renewable procurement program, so unlike the state’s regulated utilities, they aren’t mandated to set renewable energy goals. The investments in solar are being made because it’s the right thing to do for the environment and in the hope that green energy can reduce consumer costs.
Between its hydroelectric and solar capabilities, Rock Falls will be producing 15 to 30 percent green energy - about 3 megawatts - an impressive ratio for city of less than 10,000 people.