The number of home solar panel installations in Illinois has plummeted as state consumer incentives dried up amid a standoff in Springfield that’s seen lawmakers unable to agree on major energy legislation.
After a state incentive program ran out of money late last year, just 313 small rooftop solar projects were completed statewide in the three-month period ending June 30, compared with 2,908 a year earlier, Illinois Power Agency records show. Those numbers account for most of the rooftop solar projects done in Illinois.
The state program helped reduce the cost of adding solar to a home by thousands of dollars.
The funding problems also have idled hundreds of workers, hurting a fledgling, once fast-growing industry.
Unless legislators can send a fix to Gov. J.B. Pritzker by the end of the month, solar business owners warn things could get much worse.
“The story here is whether those Illinois legislators are going to choose the future or, frankly, choose the past,” says Josh Lutton, president of Certasun, a Buffalo Grove solar panel installer.
The number of Certasun’s solar installations this year is half what it was last year at this time, according to Lutton, who has furloughed dozens of workers as a result.
Lawmakers agreed months ago on details of expanded state funding for solar power. But that plan is part of a broader energy bill that’s been held up by disagreements over state aid for three Exelon nuclear power plants and a proposed phasing out of coal and natural gas.
Saving the nuclear plants and thousands of jobs together have been the centerpiece of the legislation as Exelon threatened to close two nuclear plants — in Byron and Morris — this fall unless the energy bill gets passed this month.
Lisa Albrecht, owner of All Bright Solar in Chicago, warned lawmakers more than a year ago that without a fix this year to continue the state incentives to buy and install solar panels, consumer demand would plunge.
“It’s been really challenging,” Albrecht says.
That drop in demand is seen in the bottom line numbers of solar businesses.
Michelle Knox, owner of WindSolarUSA, a renewable energy consultant and project manager in Springfield, says her business has lost about $6,400 through mid-June compared with a profit of about $34,000 at the same point last year.
“The uncertainty is creating chaos,” Knox says.
Last year, Illinois had 5,526 jobs in the solar industry, down 391 from 2019, according to the Clean Jobs Midwest report from Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs.
That doesn’t include layoffs this year, when the effects of the coronavirus and uncertainty over state funding put pressure on solar companies to cut costs.
Solar industry business operators say layoffs, which they estimate to be in the hundreds, show only part of the picture because, despite past demand, companies are slow to add jobs due to uncertainty about incentives.
Illinois ramped up its solar incentives with the Future Energy Jobs Act, a 2016 law that combined nuclear bailouts with large investments in renewable energy. But some of the renewable energy programs took years to get running and were overwhelmed by demand that far exceeded funding.
Illinois lawmakers were unable to agree on an energy bill at the end of the legislative session in May and asked environmentalists, unions and solar industry representatives to work out an agreement.
The impasse has little to do with the solar industry. It’s centered on the fate of natural gas and coal plants, including the Prairie State facility in southern Illinois that’s financially backed by dozens of Illinois towns, including Naperville and Batavia.
Senate President Don Harmon has said he’d like to call senators back to Springfield at the end of the month to vote on an energy bill. The Illinois House would need to return to take its own vote.
At the beginning of August, a union group led by the Illinois AFL-CIO told Pritzker it couldn’t reach an agreement with environmental groups.
Referring to an agreement to keep Prairie State open through 2045, a change from the previous plan to close it in 2035, Pritzker responded: “I have negotiated in good faith as pro-coal forces have shifted the goal posts throughout this process.”
Pat Devaney, secretary treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO, says unions don’t want to hold up the effort.
“We all have the same goals that we get to carbon-free generation,” Devaney says. “It’s just how we do it.”
This past week, Pritzker said at a news conference that he wants lawmakers to vote on a compromise: “This bill that’s before them now is about 97% agreed upon, so it’s just that last little bit that people have to come around.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.