Get solar energy shining again in Illinois

Number of solar rooftop installations has dropped by almost 90%. That has to change.

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Pete Southerton (left) and Tom Bradshaw, of solar energy contractor Certasun, install solar panels on a Northwest Side home earlier this year.

Pete Southerton, left, and Tom Bradshaw, of solar energy contractor Certasun, install solar panels on a Northwest Side home earlier this year.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Just a few years ago, Illinois was poised to host a rapidly growing industry of solar rooftop projects. But the state took its eye off the ball, and the effort fizzled.

The industry can start growing again, but the Legislature must act — and soon. A kitty of more than $300 million that could be used for solar projects will be returned to customers if it is not appropriated by Aug. 31.

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As Dan Gearino of Inside Climate News and Sun-Times reporter Brett Chase wrote in the Sun-Times on Monday, just 313 small rooftop solar projects were completed statewide in the three-month period ending June 30, compared with 2,908 a year earlier, according to Illinois Power Agency records. Those numbers account for most of the rooftop solar projects done in Illinois.

Such a collapse of a green energy initiative should astound anyone who looks at the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change around the country, including fires torching the West and stunning flash floods Saturday that washed away cars and homes in Tennessee.

On Monday afternoon, the state Senate resumed negotiations to try to revive Illinois’ momentum in clean energy. Negotiators doubt there are enough votes in either the House or the Senate to free up money for solar installations unless it is done as part of a comprehensive clean energy bill. The talks have an added urgency because Exelon’s money-losing Byron nuclear power plant will close on Sept. 13 if a bill doesn’t pass that grants subsidies to help nuclear power. The Dresden power nuclear plant will close shortly afterward.

Supporters of fossil fuel powered plants are pushing for a system of offsets in which the facilities could close their carbon-emissions gap by, for example, planting trees. But no other state with a 100% zero carbon requirement allows offsets in the power sector. The offsets have a spotty record of long-term enforcement and may not last over time. Some of the trees destroyed in California fires, for example, were planted as offsets.

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A 2016 law called the Future Clean Energy Jobs Act provided subsidies for solar rooftop installations, which makes solar energy affordable for many homeowners by reducing the cost by thousands of dollars. But the amount of money the law set aside fell far short of demand. What’s needed is a state program that consistently funds solar energy installations year after year.

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene on Aug. 31 to redraw legislative maps. At that time, lawmakers also should pass a sensible energy bill.

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