As states across America turn their backs on rooftop solar panel installations, Illinois has a shining opportunity to become a leader in solar energy.
A new law that went into effect July 1 updated Illinois’ “net metering” program, under which homeowners and small businesses with solar panels or wind turbines can sell excess electricity back to power companies. Solar installation companies say they need net metering to stay in business.
But around the country, utility lobbyists have persuaded state governments to pull the plug on net metering. That has helped bring down the growth in rooftop solar panel installations from as much as 600 percent over the past six years to a projected 2 percent, the New York Times reported Sunday. Hawaii, Arizona, Maine and Indiana are phasing out net metering, and many other states are considering imposing or raising fees.
Utilities say people with solar or wind installations are essentially freeloaders who use the electrical grid to sell excess power, leaving other users to share the cost of maintaining the grid. Environmentalists, though, point to studies that say net metering benefits utilities by reducing demand. A 2016 review by Environment America of 16 recent studies concluded net metering’s benefits outweigh the costs both for utilities and society in general.
Encouraging homeowners and small businesses to use renewable energy reduces reliance on fuels that are threatening to drastically change Earth’s climate. It also helps build a market for renewable energy companies, which in turn drives down costs and spurs research.
In Illinois, net metering is protected until it supplies more than 5 percent of the state’s power needs. Once it hits 5 percent, the Illinois Commerce Commission will draw up new rules that balance the needs of utilities and those who generate their own renewable energy.
Until now, Illinois has lagged some other areas of the country, partly because of what environmentalists called a broken renewable portfolio standard — a minimum of energy that must come from renewables. But the standard has been fixed in the new law. Andrew Barbeau, president of the Accelerate Group, a consulting firm on clean energy and other issues, predicts the number of rooftop solar installations in Illinois will soon zoom from between 1,000 and 1,500 to hundreds of thousands.
The effort to shut down rooftop solar is putting much of the country under a cloud. With the right determination, Illinois can bring renewable energy jobs here. It’s an opportunity the state should seize.