Community solar is ready to move forward in Chicago and Cook County.
When Chicagoans drive toward Des Moines, Indianapolis and Springfield, they see local wind turbines helping to power our transition to a clean energy future. Here in Cook County, our best renewable energy growth opportunity is installing modern solar energy panels on residential and commercial building rooftops and on underutilized “brownfield” industrial sites.
Solar energy development is being driven by smart policies, technological improvements, and civic and political leadership. The Illinois Legislature passed a modernized Renewable Portfolio Standard, which, if implemented well, can jump-start solar energy installations and financing. It’s especially important for Illinois to move quickly to leverage the federal Investment Tax Credit for solar energy that is available over the next four years.
There have been huge technological innovations in almost all solar energy equipment. Solar panel costs have dropped from $4 per watt to less than 40 cents per watt over the past 10 years, and solar inverter efficiency has improved to close to 99 percent.
Since 2015, Cook County has partnered with the city of Chicago, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Elevate Energy, Commonwealth Edison and West Monroe Partners to advance development of new community solar projects. In 2011 the City of Chicago solar formed an energy partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology, Environmental Law & Policy Center and West Monroe Partners. Both SunShot initiatives, supported by U.S. Department of Energy grants, accelerate solar energy projects, streamline processes and remove barriers.
Community solar energy is like a community garden. Just as some people don’t have a sunny backyard for a vegetable garden, other folks don’t have rooftops that are well-designed or well-situated for solar development. Some rooftops are shaded by trees or buildings, or they face or tilt in less advantageous directions. Some rental tenants or condo owners might be interested in solar energy while others are less so. Through community solar projects, people share in a local renewable clean energy project and gain both the energy and economic values as if those solar panels were on their own roofs.
Public demand for community solar energy is high. When Cook County requested proposals for potential community solar sites, it received more than 100 recommended sites from throughout suburban Cook County and the city. The proposals came from businesses, community and civic groups, and governmental agencies, and the sites included commercial buildings, school and church rooftops, and industrial brownfields. Cook County and its partners are now working to analyze the business case for community solar projects at 15 business, educational and non-profit locations throughout the county.
The Illinois Power Agency and Illinois Commerce Commission will soon begin work to implement standards for the new Illinois renewable energy legislative programs for community solar, low-income solar, commercial and residential building rooftop solar, and “brownfields to (solar) brightfields” projects. New job training programs should create opportunities for neighborhood residents to gain skills for the clean energy jobs of the future.
With President Donald Trump’s unfortunate rollbacks of federal environmental and clean energy initiatives, our states, counties and cities must step up. Chicago and Cook County should be national leaders in stepping up to accelerate solar energy. Let’s seize the solar energy development opportunities for progress in our communities.
Howard A. Learner is executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
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