Sound Ideas Climate Change Roundtable: Solar Power Treatment In Illinois 'Appalling'

Apr 11, 2016

The climate change panel discussion at the Illinois Sustainable Living and Wellness expo.
Credit Ralph Weisheit

Solar electric power generation, an energy option which could reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change, is facing some serious hurdles in Illinois.

During a Sound Ideas climate change panel discussion at the Illinois Sustainable Living and Wellness Expo, the five guests agreed that Illinois has more than enough sunshine to produce ample solar power, that solar power would create jobs, and lower utility prices.

However, Jennifer Walling, the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council said the way solar has been treated in Illinois has been "appalling."

Solar power options are facing legislative barriers. One provision in the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill would allow community solar gardens (CSGs), permitting neighborhoods to establish their own solar power farms on unused land or so-called brownfield sites. The bill is stalled, as is nearly everything, in the General Assembly as a result of the budget stalemate.

"The utility cost escalator is increasing at about five-percent per year since 2005," said Dr. William Rau, a retired Illinois State University professor and activist with Vision 2020. "We're going to be literally pricing poor people out of the electricity market if this cost escalator continues at its present rate. One of the reasons why I'm such a strong advocate for community solar is those rates are stable for 25 years.

Vision 2020 in Bloomington-Normal is part of an international movement preparing for the impacts of climate change and peak oil and working to help communities to become a more resilient and viable.

Participants in a CSG don't have to live near the solar farm to benefit from it and anyone could buy into the CSG, including renters. In addition to the stalled Clean Jobs Bill, a committee vote  on a separate measure on Tuesday could also jeopardize CSGs.

The vote on Tuesday by the state general assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) would negatively affect residential or community solar power generation. Walling says JCAR will vote on a measure that would destroy some current net metering provisions. She said electric providers are opposed to net metering and that utilities are likely to "get their way." Net metering is the billing arrangement with a utility that determines how customers get credit for any excess renewable electricity delivered to the grid. A net meter tracks both the electricity consumed and the electricity generated by the on-site solar or renewable energy systems.

"They (JCAR) have this decision before them, even though the Illinois Commerce Commission has done a two year study and provided a report saying that it's absolutely imperative that they maintain the net metering the way it is and that the the utilities need to keep things the way they are now," said Kiersten Sheets, a climate change panelist and an energy efficiency expert with Ruyle Mechanical Services of Peoria, IL. "But they (utilities) continue lobby and they have this decision going before JCAR saying 'abosultely not; we don't want to do it.' It will absolutely 100% destroy any opportunity for community solar."

"This will be extremely problematic. We will probably need to undo the damage with legislation or through negotiation on this Clean Jobs Bill. It' not fun to have another chip of something that we felt we already had in place that we'll have to negotiate again," said Walling.

"What we have done through our policies, whether its the policies that just simply make it competitive or polices that are meant to provide subsidies or grants, we have just really hurt that industry in Illinois," said Walling. "There so much more we could do for the business climate for solar in Illinois."

Other panelists included Illinois' State Climatologist Dr. Jim Angel, and Rick Knight state co-coordinator with the Citizens' Climate Lobby. A representative from Exelon was invited, but unable to attend.  Exelon operates the Clinton Power Station.