Chicago, Illinois, a city famously known for its abundance of wind, is steadily making a name for itself in a different renewable energy field.
That’s right — it might be time to change Chicago’s nickname to the “Sunny City”, as the state of Illinois has made big strides in designing equitable community solar programs since 2016.
Okay, so we’re admittedly unsure if we’re ready to advocate for this name change, but we are certain that Illinois’s community solar future is as bright as any other state in the nation. Before we dive into the directions this state might be headed in, let’s touch briefly on how we got here.
Laying the Groundwork for Community Solar
Community-shared solar was welcomed into the state of Illinois in 2016 when the Illinois legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA). FEJA was a groundbreaking energy policy, investing rate-payer funds in the advancement of renewables in the state, creating thousands of clean energy jobs, and establishing opportunities for low-income communities to benefit from renewables, including Illinois’ Solar for All program.
This legislation required the Illinois Power Association to support the development of 3,000 MW of solar, with 400 MW of that dedicated to community solar, through 2030. That’s enough solar energy to power millions of homes, and at the time, it appeared Illinois was on a promising path toward allowing more residents to transition away from fossil fuels.
Community solar in low-income and environmental justice communities was set up to get another level of support through the Solar For All program, which aimed to make community solar work for everyone by ensuring that low-income participants only have to pay for up to 50% of the value of the energy generated by a system. All in all, FEJA served as a shining, bipartisan example of a state making major changes to its energy system to combat the climate crisis.
Community Solar in Illinois Today
In 2018, Illinois approved its first community solar projects through a lottery system called the Adjustable Block Program. As of 2019, the program has supported nearly 1,200 MW of utility-scale solar and, according to the program website, a little over 200 MW of community solar has been approved since this program started. That’s a massive improvement for a state that, prior to FEJA being passed in 2016, only had 55 MW of installed solar.
Due to this bill, thousands of Illinoisans have been given the chance to support renewable energy while saving some money on their energy bills, and for that, the state deserves some recognition. In fact, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council placed Illinois alongside other clean energy leaders like Massachusetts, Colorado, and New Jersey when it graded every state’s community solar program just a few months ago.
The Ultimate Guide To Community Solar
Illinois’ impressive solar growth was inspired in part by developers flooding the state with projects to make use of its new program–so many that the Illinois Power Association received nearly ten times more applications than they could award. Thus, it was clear from the outset that community solar was ready for Illinois, even if Illinois wasn’t quite ready for all that community solar.
This level of competition turned out to be indicative of a trend for community solar in the state, as it has only been able to fund a small subset of the hundreds of projects that have applied for development.
Community solar development under the much smaller Solar for All program has seen only eight low-income community solar projects reach development in the program’s first two years. Additionally, due to cost spikes caused by utilities, community solar hasn’t yet effectively reached the city of Chicago or the numerous environmental justice communities on its South Side (note: Solstice expects to expand its community solar services to Chicago very soon – stay tuned for more!)
There’s no doubt that Illinois has made big strides on solar, and yet the state is set to come up way short on its renewable portfolio standard goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025. Community solar and environmental justice advocates have been left wanting more, and have come up with a few differing plans for leading Illinois into the clean energy future it needs.
Where Community Solar Might be Headed
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the community solar landscape in Illinois, it’s that this state loves a competition. The future of community solar there is no different, as three separate energy bills have been proposed in the last year that would likely shape the future of renewables in Illinois for next decade. The Clean Energy Jobs Act, Path to 100 Act, and Downstate Clean Energy Affordability Act all differ substantially in their plan for revitalizing solar growth in the state, and each has the potential to contribute to whatever combined law is eventually passed.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act and Path to 100% Act both promise to get the state to 100% renewable energy by 2030 by increasing the small monthly charge already attached to customers’ utility bills and investing that additional money in renewable projects. The Path to 100% Act, backed primarily by the renewables industry, would significantly advance the development of renewables in the state, including the 800 projects currently waitlisted because funds from FEJA have dried up. The Clean Energy Jobs Act, backed by a diverse coalition of environmental and community groups, asks for more money but is a broader bill, prioritizing the creation of green economy jobs for low-income, minority, rural, and environmental justice communities across the state.
Did You Know?
Illinois’ Solar For All Program Is a Big Deal. Seriously.
Governor Pritzker said in January 2020 that the state legislature would adopt new clean energy legislation in the then upcoming Spring session, and that this legislation would put the people first. “It’s time to support consumers and climate first.” Pritzker said, “I am not going to sign an energy bill written by the utility companies.”
If the Governor sticks to his word, that would not bode well for the Downstate Clean Energy Affordability Act, a bill proposed by Ameren, the investor-owned utility supplying power to the lower three-quarters of the state. This bill would shift the state’s renewable strategy to utility solar, all likely to be developed by Ameren. The bill also calls for a much softer goal of 32.5% of Illinois’s energy coming from renewables by 2030 compared to the other bills’ proposals of 100% renewables by that time. Funding for the Downstate Clean Energy Affordability Act would also come from ratepayers, but Ameren says the ultimate cost to rate-payers would be less than what the other two bills are proposing.
With the state’s legislature on pause at the moment due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, so too is any long- term solution to advancing renewables within the state. Intense competition and relatively low implementation of solar so far have led community solar and environmental justice advocates to get used to the “hurry up and wait” game. Nevertheless, the state seems to be headed in a promising direction with community groups, the renewables industry, and the utilities all pushing for the state to commit to immediate climate action.
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