September 19, 2017

Illinois Utilities Begin to Design Community Solar Programs Under New Energy Law

Illinois utilities and regulators are putting into motion plans for community solar programs under the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act that passed last year.

In filings with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) last month, ComEd outlined proposed terms and conditions for “Community Supply,” also referred to as community solar. Ameren Illinois has also recently filed paperwork with the ICC outlining changes to net metering policies as the state moves to implement community solar.

So far, the filings are relatively narrow in scope, setting the table for bigger debates over how community solar and other aspects of Illinois’ changing energy landscape impact ratepayers. Both utilities are essentially defining the terms of how consumers will be credited in a community solar arrangement, and a decision by the ICC is expected by the end of the month.

More significant changes are expected to come once the state outlines a more long-term plan for deploying and pricing renewable power.

Clean energy advocates and consumer groups have largely responded positively to the initial steps taken toward community solar in Illinois, but have voiced some concerns over who will be able to participate in the program and how much incentive they will receive to do so.

“Overall, it’s looking pretty good,” says Brad Klein, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). “We expect the mechanics to work well for the companies and for subscribers and to hopefully make it a pretty smooth experience for them.”

ELPC hopes to maximize the value of the bill credit community solar subscribers would receive in exchange for participating in the program. Under ComEd’s proposal, the credit would be limited to electricity value, while ELPC prefers that it also include transmission value. Klein says excluding transmission value would reduce the value of the bill credit by 20 percent.

ELPC and other groups have also flagged potential concerns over ensuring small, grassroots and community-driven solar efforts have equal access to developing community solar projects.

“In order for the program to fully serve Illinois residents and communities, the (Illinois Power Agency) should take extra care to design the community solar program with both developer-driven as well as more bottom-up, community-driven projects in mind,” the Sierra Club wrote in response to a request for comments in advance of the agency’s forthcoming renewables plan. “The Agency should also monitor the success of community-driven projects and consider program changes if such projects struggle to succeed.”

Overall, the Future Energy Jobs Act has ambitious plans for adding solar capacity statewide: 2,700 megawatts (MW) by 2030 compared to the current 75 MW. Of that, about 50 percent is to be from distributed and community solar.

More customer control

Community supply is aimed at opening up solar power to consumers and households that might not have the financial means or space requirements to install or own an onsite solar array.

“The old model is for the energy supply to be one way, but customers want more control over and choices for their energy use,” said ComEd spokesperson Elizabeth Keating. “Community Supply allows customers who do not, or cannot, choose to install their own generation, to participate in renewable generation.”

ComEd’s move is a result of the Future Energy Jobs Act passed in December by the Illinois General Assembly. The legislation bolsters two financially stressed Illinois nuclear plants, calls for a dramatic increase in spending on efficiency programs and renewables projects, particularly in low-income areas. It also outlines the broad parameters of how utilities can and should implement the principle of community supply.  

Later this month, the Illinois Power Agency is expected to release a draft “Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan” that will detail many of the goals set forth in the Future Energy Jobs Act.

The Act calls for 400 megawatts of community solar projects in Illinois by 2030. Nationally, there are nearly 3 gigawatts of community solar in development across 29 states, according to a report released in February by Greentech Media Research. ComEd expects its customers will be able to participate in community solar sometime in 2018.

Shared solar potential

Solar advocates see huge potential for community or shared solar to greatly expand the adoption of renewable energy across the U.S. Roughly half of American households and businesses are unable to host their own photovoltaic system, according to a 2015 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

If solar were made available to these customers through shared solar programs, it could represent 32 percent to 49 percent of the distributed solar photovoltaic market by 2020, the NREL study found. That would increase cumulative solar photovoltaic development growth by 5.5 gigawatts to 11 gigawatts between 2015 and 2020, representing $8.2 billion to $16.3 billion in investment.

In the Chicagoland area, where many people rent their homes, the barrier to solar is even higher. Cook County officials estimate that as much as 75 percent of residents are unable to host their own solar photovoltaic system. With backing from the U.S. Department of Energy, Cook County launched its own community solar effort in 2015. In May, the Cook County Department of Environmental Control selected 15 pilot sites to study and establish community solar in the region. The ultimate goal is to provide solar to 300,000 households that would not otherwise have access to the energy source.  

Between 2018 and 2030, community solar is expected to create 11,363 cumulative total jobs in Illinois, according to a benefits study released in August by Cook County. These jobs will produce an estimated $655 million in cumulative total earnings for local workers over that same time period.

Illinois will be the second state in the Midwest to implement a statutory, statewide community solar program, Klein says. In 2013, Minnesota enacted an energy billthat introduced community “solar gardens,” which similarly allowed customers to subscribe to nearby solar projects. More than 300 MW of solar gardens at more than 80 locations are proceeding through the design and construction process, according to Xcel Energy.

“[Minnesota’s] program is really getting its legs under it now, and it’s growing,” Klein says. “We expect Illinois to be growing extremely quickly over the next few years and to be a leading market for community solar.”

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