Innovative Illinois initiative seeks to make solar power available for all

We recently celebrated the one year anniversary of the monumental clean energy development package passed by the Illinois state legislature, the Future Energy Jobs Act. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) joined forces with community-based organizations, fellow enviros, and clean energy industry representatives as part of the Clean Jobs Coalition to push for the historic bill, and now continues to work for its effective, efficient, and equitable implementation.

One of the many remarkable results of the legislation is the Illinois Solar for All program, created to increase access to the solar economy for economically disadvantaged communities and areas that meet program standards for designation as environmental justice (EJ) communities. In fact, the legislation allocates at least 25 percent of funds for three of the four subprograms (described below) to projects located in EJ communities.

The Solar for All program works by addressing the additional barriers these communities face when it comes to participating in renewable energy programs. By providing access to solar with no upfront costs, and a cash-positive experience (i.e. customers can positively manage their energy use and bills), the Illinois Solar for All program has the potential to transform how communities create, interact with, and benefit from clean energy.

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Solar for All

Solar for All’s goals are ambitious. Here’s how it’s designed to work.

First, it’s important to understand how Solar for All is being funded. The program has three funding sources: the Renewable Energy Resources Fund established by the Illinois Power Agency Act in 2007, and two pots of funds from renewable resources budgets of utilities in the state. Therefore, funds have been built up by customers over the years and are ready to serve the people of Illinois.

Also, EJ communities in Illinois will be identified using the methodology of CalEnviroScreen and information available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJ SCREEN tool.

There are four subprograms within the Illinois Solar for All Program. The first three target different types of customers or solar projects, and offer financial incentives for developers.

  1. Low-income distributed generation provides funding for solar PV projects on individual and multi-family buildings (like apartment complexes) in low-income areas.
  2. Low-income community solar encourages participation in community solar by customers with low incomes, and requires that each project demonstrate meaningful partnership with community stakeholders. Additional incentives are offered if the project is 100 percent low-income subscriber owned. Participants will not have to pay subscription fees (like they would for a typical community solar project).
  3. Non-profits and public facilities supports the development of on-site solar PV projects to serve not-for-profit and public sector customers. Projects must demonstrate connection to and input from low-income community members and/or that the project is located at a facility owned by an organization that is a critical service provider for the community, such as a hospital, shelter, or youth center.

By offsetting the upfront costs, these incentives are meant to encourage building solar projects in economically disadvantaged and EJ communities. So, for example, if a developer put together a plan for installing solar panels on a local hospital, they would apply for an incentive in the third subprogram. Once completed, the developer would be paid through Solar for All, and the hospital would receive the power created by the panels without having to pay the upfront costs of installing them.

Pilot subprogram

The final subprogram is for pilot projects and works a little differently. Essentially, the Illinois Power Agency will issue a request for proposals for community solar projects and choose pilots based on which are most financially competitive. There is a hefty $50 million available in funding.

All projects must provide economic benefits for members of the community in which the project will be located, such as a commitment to local hiring, or offering subscriptions to community residents and organizations. Additionally, projects are required to demonstrate partnership with at least one community-based organization.

Interestingly, even utilities can participate in this subprogram, meaning the state’s utilities – ComEd and Ameren – could propose a community solar program and compete for the funding.

Interestingly, even utilities can participate in this subprogram, meaning the state’s utilities – ComEd and Ameren – could propose a community solar program and compete for the funding. If these utility companies are able to put together competitive bids, this program could lend itself to major innovations in microgrid development, extending the reach of projects beyond energy to research and creating new models of engagement for utilities.

Job growth

The Solar for All program also includes ambitious goals around employment.

Projects that are a part of the Low-Income Distributed Generation Incentive, for example, must coordinate with the Solar Training Pipeline funded by ComEd, as well as the other two workforce development programs established by the Future Energy Jobs Act. For organizations in and serving the communities that are accessing the Solar for All incentives, this creates opportunities to recruit trainees, provide training, and eventually take part in building these projects.

Looking Ahead

The Illinois Power Agency released a draft of its Long Term Renewable Resource Procurement Plan last month, detailing specific incentive levels, funding allocations, and procedures for programs created by the Future Energy Jobs Act, including Illinois Solar for All.

Although the plan is in good shape, EDF has submitted comments, as have other members of the Solar for All Working Group. The plan is pending approval before the Illinois Commerce Commission and will be finalized early spring.

The development and progress of the Solar for All Program is indicative of how far Illinois has come in its fight for a clean energy economy. The state has taken large steps in the right direction with the Future Energy Jobs Act, but additional work and deliberation is required to see the bill fulfill its potential. With innovative approaches like Solar for All, Illinois is at the forefront of a growing national movement to increase access to the solar economy.

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