Illinoisans are barraged on a daily basis with stories of economic doom and gloom, so much that it’s almost hard to recognize when a great economic success story is taking place right in front of our eyes.
Let’s take a minute to recognize that Illinois is in the midst of a renewable energy boom that is creating jobs, attracting more than a billion in private investment, creating millions in revenue for farmers, helping electric customers manage their electric costs, and reducing pollution. And then let’s recognize that this boom could become a bust if lawmakers are too slow to act on pending clean energy legislation that would fully fund meeting the state’s clean energy targets.
Solar is wildly popular nationally and in Illinois
Solar power is wildly popular across the political spectrum nationally and here in Illinois, and for good reason. The fuel from the sun is free, and the upfront costs of solar panels has fallen more than 70% over the last decade, making solar power far more accessible than ever before. In addition, it is available at every scale from the size of a single household, to the size of a full power plant. Solar power also makes our power grid more reliable and resilient and less polluting, while giving electricity customers a way to effectively manage their energy costs. It’s a win-win-win.
To capture these benefits Illinois adopted the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) in 2016, requiring that an increasing portion of the power sold to customers in Illinois come from clean solar and wind projects. Under the law, the state purchases renewable energy credits (RECS) from solar and wind projects. The cost of those RECs is set to decline over time, as the cost of renewable energy declines.
The law has been a huge success. Over the coming year, the solar industry is going to build 4100 solar projects adding up to 500 megawatts of electric capacity across the state, with projects in 97 of our 102 counties. Approximately 2,500 homeowners and small businesses have chosen to go solar, but the program is also attracting major corporate participation, with more than 1,500 large rooftop or distributed solar projects underway. For example, WalMart is putting solar on 21 stores in Illinois.
For people who cannot put solar on their home, such as renters or people with shaded rooftops, more than 130 community solar projects will soon be under construction. Simply subscribe to a portion of the power from a community solar project, and receive credits on your bill, just as if it were on your own rooftop.
All of this activity adds up to an enormous economic success story that isn’t on the front page of the newspaper, but it should be. More $1.5 billion in private capital investment in solar projects will mean and tens of millions of dollars in land lease revenue for landowners and local tax revenues over the next 20 years. This is a real boon to our state’s economy.
But Illinois's popular solar program is at risk — and lawmakers must act now
Here’s the problem. The program was so popular that the Illinois Power Agency had to hold a lottery to determine which projects would receive the limited renewable energy credits. Hundreds of projects did not win the lottery, so the developers and landowners who were hoping for leases are on hold.
The Illinois Power Agency is warning that there is no more funding to accommodate new projects. Already, larger corporate and institutional customers like churches and schools are being added to waiting lists, and solar companies are beginning to cut back on their sales forces. The construction of approved projects will be ongoing for another year, but after that, the future of the solar workforce is uncertain.
What does this program cost for utility customers? The renewable energy standard is supported by just one-one hundredth of my electricity bill. One percent. It’s a tiny fraction of the amount I pay for electricity service, and it helps to reduce the cost to maintain the electric grid. It is a bargain that we can’t afford to slip away.
The Illinois General Assembly has the opportunity to intervene, to keep the solar market growing across Illinois. We need a permanent solution to ensure that the state’s renewable energy goals are fully funded. With just a few weeks left in the legislative session, we need lawmakers to make this a top priority.
Photo Credit: Utility Dive