In the spring of 2002, Gamesa, a global wind energy giant, approached landowners in rural Lee County about building the first commercial-scale wind farm in Illinois.
After a series of tests, the Mendota Hills Wind Farm went online in November 2003. The project, which Gamesa later sold, has 63 windmills that produce 50.4 megawatts of electricity a year - enough to power between 11,000 and 15,000 homes.
Mendota Hills was an early test of wind power in a state that was not known as one of the windiest in the union.
"Wind energy adapts itself to regions," said Michael Peck, director of external relations for Gamesa USA. "This is what's going to happen throughout Illinois, and Mendota Hills is an example."
Since Mendota Hills was built, advances in technology that allow windmills to harness wind at lower speeds have helped make Illinois one of the country's leaders in wind energy.
With 15 projects in operation and five under development, Illinois is ranked ninth in the country for wind energy capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Experts say that's a product of good wind speeds in central and northern Illinois, a well-developed electric grid and recent changes in state law.
All of the factors that make Illinois a hub for wind exist in the suburbs, but there are also many challenges unique to the northeastern corner of the state.
Commercial-scale wind energy operations typically require wind speeds of at least 11 mph, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Maps produced by the Illinois Wind Program show much of central and northern Illinois has wind that blows between 15 and 20 mph.
But good wind isn't enough to make wind projects feasible. Developers also need a robust transmission network to carry the electricity produced by their turbines. The fact that Illinois has such a grid puts it in a better position to exploit wind energy than some states that are much windier, experts say.
"It's the infrastructure point that makes the state very suitable for wind because we can transmit it," said Kevin Borgia, executive director of the Illinois Wind Energy Association. "North Dakota blows us out of the water, but they just don't have the transmission infrastructure."
A recent change to Illinois law has made the state even more attractive to potential wind developers. In 2007, Illinois passed a Renewable Portfolio Standard law, which dictates the state must get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025, with 75 percent of that in the form of wind power.
"The impact of the ... law in Illinois is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 to 8,000 megawatts," Borgia estimated, enough energy to power more than 1.5 million homes for a year.
Currently, Illinois wind operations have a capacity of about 1,100 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Despite the success of Gamesa and other wind pioneers, there are many obstacles to wind farms in northern Illinois. The most obvious in the Chicago suburbs is the lack of enough open land to support a medium- or large-scale wind farm.
"You have an easier time finding 1,000 acres in a rural area," said Dave Ulm, supervisor of facilities and energy management for Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, which would like to put up a windmill on its Hampshire school campus. "Finding a small group of large parcels is much easier downstate than it is up here."
Another issue is the relative newness of wind power to some Chicago-area communities, which don't yet have the regulations in place to allow windmills.
In Hampshire on the far western fringes of the suburbs in western Kane County, for example, the village board would have to pass an ordinance allowing windmills before Ulm can put one up.
"Because they don't have any ordinances on the books, they have to actually create ordinances before they can give us permits," Ulm said. "They're going to be learning just as we are."
Some local officials, under pressure from wary suburban residents, have been reluctant to welcome windmills to their towns.
Opponents of wind farms complain of a host of issues: noise, shadows cast by the windmills, the threat to birds and other wildlife from their blades, and proximity to homes.
The last issue has effectively thwarted Gary Ofisher's efforts to erect windmills in suburban Hanover Park, prompting him to look for other opportunities downstate.
"We have looked at sites closer to home," said Ofisher, director of operations for Keeneyville Elementary District 20 schools. "The only problem is, most of the counties have ordinances that would discourage a wind turbine from being set up."
The Hanover Park village board has contemplated a 1,000-foot setback for wind turbines. "There's no area anywhere in Hanover Park that is 1,000 feet away from an inhabitable residence," Ofisher said.
Vocal residents have also mounted stiff opposition to wind projects. In DeKalb County, a sprawling wind farm built by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources is the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by 38 residents.
The crux of their beef is that NextEra's 145 windmills, which cut across DeKalb and Lee counties, will depress their property values.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if you're in the market for a single-family home in the area, you're seeking solitude," said Rick Porter, the Rockford-based attorney representing the plaintiffs. "Nobody in their right mind is going to do that surrounded by turbines, and if they're going to that, they're going to pay substantially less."
Neighbors are also concerned about noise.
"I have been to wind farms in Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois ... and if you get wind faster than 13 mph, it sounds like a runway at O'Hare Airport," said Mel Hass, a Shabbona resident who has led the opposition to the NextEra project.
NextEra Energy says the facts don't bear out residents' claims.
"There are a number of property value studies that have been done," NextEra spokeswoman Mary Wells said. "All of these studies have come to the same conclusion that they can't find any impact on property values from wind projects."
Although no one study can be considered definitive, a study released by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory this month found little evidence that wind farms depress home values.
"Neither the view of the wind facilities nor the distance of the home to those facilities is found to have any consistent, measurable and statistically significant effect on home sales prices," the study concludes.
As for noise, Wells said: "We maintain a minimum setback from homes. We design our wind facilities to minimize sound impacts. I've never heard one that sounds like a jet engine."
While the NextEra project is complete, a similar resident-led effort against wind turbines in Lake County led several towns to impose moratoriums on wind developments.
A lawsuit against a single, 120-foot windmill in Libertyville succeeded in getting Aldridge Electric to turn off the turbine on nights and weekends.
A dozen communities are working with Lake County officials to find a comprehensive solution to wind power in the county.
Of course, the problem may be that there are just too many people in the Chicago suburbs and surrounding counties.
"There's no question that higher population density increases the likelihood of opposition to large-scale wind power," DeKalb County planner Paul Miller said. "The opposition is directly proportional to population density."
Kane County, for example, has about 1,000 people per square mile, compared with 170 people per square mile in DeKalb County and 140 people per square mile in downstate McLean County, 2008 census data show.
A new hope
Some wind enthusiasts are trying to find ways around the roadblocks.
A consortium made up of District 300, District 20 and Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 is trying to build a 20-megawatt wind farm in McLean County to offset their energy costs.
But the districts have struggled to find a financial model that will work because current law requires utilities to buy the consortium's power at only a fraction of the typical retail cost for electricity.
The latest model would use incentives in the federal stimulus as well and federal tax credits to reduce the cost of the windmills.
"It's a very unique moment in time where they're giving a significant amount of money for renewable energy opportunities," Ofisher said.
Despite the support of more than 60 Illinois school districts, the bill that would have fixed the compensation issue didn't even make it out of committee.
The bill met strong resistance from the electric utilities, which argued they wouldn't be fairly compensated for the cost of transmitting the districts' electricity.
Some entrepreneurs are hoping to skirt the land issue by tapping the market for "small wind," individual turbines that can power a home or small business.
Earlier this year, Elgin-based Monarch Renewable Energy started marketing small turbines to customers in exurban Chicago.
With limited space and skittish local officials making large turbines and clusters of turbines a longshot in the suburbs, experts say small wind may be the next best thing.
"If you get less than an acre, it gets hard from a zoning standpoint," Monarch co-owner Scott Crompton said. "But if you're out in an area where you have a couple-acre site to work with, you typically have what you need in terms of setbacks."
Despite the obstacles, there are positive signs for wind in Illinois.
The federal stimulus package created an investment tax credit that reimburses wind developers 30 percent of the cost of building wind farms.
"With (investment houses) Lehman (Brothers), Bear Stearns and others imploding ... the market disappeared," said Peck of Gamesa USA. "The tax credits have allowed the sector to partially recuperate. ... If you don't have banks financing wind developers' turbines right now, factories will sit vacant."
The Illinois General Assembly recently passed a measure allowing the Illinois Finance Authority to facilitate loans to wind developers.
The combination of the federal tax credits and the state acting as a lender should spur a wave of new wind development in Illinois, experts say.
"I really think 2010 is going to be a huge year for Illinois wind," Dave Loomis, director of the Center for Renewable Energy.