From October 21 through 24, over ten thousand people will be flocking to McCormick Place for the Solar Power International expo. Perhaps the 2013 trade show chose to spotlight Chicago for good reason. Solar installations, incentives, innovators and industry trends are blazing solar energy forward in Illinois, a plus for both our environment and economy.
Here are 20 Solar Brightspots to Beam about in Illinois:
(also see accompanying Solar Surprises in Illinois by Amanda Hanley in Huffington Post)
Solar installations are booming
Solar is the fastest growing energy sector in the United States, a solar photovoltaic (PV) system is installed every four minutes. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Illinois installed 30 MW of solar electric capacity in 2012 and ranks 13th in the country for installed solar capacity. Currently, there is enough solar energy installed in the state to power 6,200 homes. Consult with a solar installer to see if it’s time to put photovoltaic (PV) panels on your home our business.
Solar PV system price is dropping
In an increasing number of markets around the country, solar is getting more and more competitive. National prices have been dropping steadily, from $10/W in 2001 to around $3.05/W in 2013. According to the SEIA, the average installed residential and commercial photovoltaic (PV) system prices have fallen by 26% in Illinois the past year. Plummeting prices may be credited to state and federal policies, technological advances, scaled up production and a recent global glut in supply. Grid parity is well within reach, and solar may soon kick the traditional kilowatt to the curb. Rebate and incentives available in Illinois also help cut the cost.
Yes, Illinois has enough sunlight!
Solar energy can work just about anywhere. Keep in mind that Germany, the world’s largest solar power market per capita, has weather closer to Seattle. Brandon Leavitt of Solar Service points out, “Chicago ranks thirds in useable sunshine…with only 20 minutes less so than Miami during the summer months.” Solar energy is also available when the power is most needed in the market– noon – and it’s the perfect peaking resource for hot summer days. According to the Citizens Utility Board, a residential solar panel system in ComEd territory can oﬀset an estimated 32 percent of annual consumption.
Commercial rooftops are powering up
Across the nation, big box retailers are fueling their operations by producing power on their massive rooftops. So far in Illinois, solar arrays can be found on IKEA’s Schaumburg and Bolingbrook stores and Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in Deerfield. Green leader Walgreens will soon have more than 350 solar powered stores in the U.S., and is expected to open the nation’s first net zero energy retail store in Evanston this November. According to Pete Kadens, President of of SoCore Energy responsible for installing arrays at both IKEA and Walgreens, rooftop installations typically offset 10-40% of the annual electric load, depending on the size of system and facility. In Illinois, the payback ranges from 8-15 years, factoring in the system cost, cost of kWh power and system size. Kadens hints that more flagship solar projects are in the works for Chicagoland.
Solar farms are sprouting
Large-scale solar arrays are turning Illinois brownfields into brightfields. The West Pullman/Exelon City Solar, developed by SunPower, is the country’s first and largest urban solar farm located in Chicago. It was built on a reclaimed brownfield and now this
10 MW project powers about 1,500 homes. Invenergy developed one of the largest solar farms in the Midwest at Grand Ridge Solar in LaSalle County, next to the company’s wind farm. This 20 MW, 140-acre project powers around 4,000 homes. Also, a 3 MW solar farm by New Generation Power and Wanxiang America is located in Rockford. On the horizon, Brightfields Development has proposed 20 MW solar farm in Carbondale and 20 MW in East St. Louis on former industrial sites. Brownfields with adequate space, unobstructed sunlight and access to electric grid not only accommodate the needs of solar farms, but solar arrays can also transform contaminated land with modest remediation. The Environmental Policy and Law Center has identified 56 potential sites throughout Chicagoland that could add 300 MW of power to our region, in some cases by powering adjacent industrial operations. Watch this Chicago Ideas Week 2012 talk by Deborah Sawyer, President of Environmental Design International, on the potential of turning underutilized industrial sites into renewable energy projects.
Solar sights wow
The Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) is hosting free Solar in the City tours on Monday October 21st, 9-11 am and 1-3 pm. Four separate tours will showcase the best examples of solar innovation. Tour attendees will meet at the Millennium Park Welcome Center for a brief tour of the integrated solar on the northwest pavilion. Participants will then be transported via a classic green and red Chicago Trolley to their tour location. Space is limited, register for your free tour here.
The solar industry is an economic engine
Solar energy means business in the Midwest, the industry is one of the fastest growing in the nation. This growth is surely benefitting the Illinois economy. In 2012, solar installations
on homes and businesses were valued at $27 million. This represents a 3 ½ times increase over the previous year, and is expected to grow again this year. According to SEIA, more than 187 solar companies are throughout the value chain in Illinois, employing 1,700 people. Clean, homegrown energy puts people of many backgrounds to work and most of these jobs cannot be outsourced. Occupations may include scientific research and development, engineering, solar system installers/maintenance, manufacturing of solar components, sales and support. To explore diverse jobs across the industry, see the Department of Energy solar career map and the Bureau of Labor Statistics Careers in Solar Power. SEIA provides members with solar training opportunities, certifications, and training program accreditations, and posts a national solar job board.
Solar tech hub is emerging
Illinois is becoming a world-class solar technology innovation and manufacturing hotpot. Raja Krishnamoorthi, President of Sivananthan Laboratories, points out the tremendous local R & D
talent working to create next gen solar cells. Illinois has one of the country’s largest concentrations of physicists anywhere in the country, prolific research universities (i.e., UIC, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern, University of Chicago), acclaimed national labs (Argonne, Fermilab) and some leading solar companies. In addition, the Midwest has a large glass industry, auto industry, and other manufacturing resources to fabricate solar cells. Krishnamoorthi is hopeful the non-profit Institute for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training (InSPIRE), will bolster the Illinois solar ecosystem by promoting research, development, workforce training, and technology commercialization. InSPIRE student chapters at 12 universities/colleges have been created (or are in the process) to encourage students to learn about solar technology and explore careers in the field.
University competitions are cultivating future solar leaders
The Solar Decathlon is a prestigious biennial competition sponsored by the U.S. Department
of Energy (DOE) that challenges twenty collegiate teams to design, build, and operate the most cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive solar homes. In 2007, 2009 and 2011, the University of Illinois has been a formidable competitor in Washington D.C. against other universities from around the world. This year, U of I students partnered with students from Peking University in Beijing to design and build a net zero energy home for the first ever Solar Decathlon China. The culmination of a two-year collaboration, students constructed their home in Datong, China where it was judged on its performance in 10 categories. The American Solar Challenge is another collegiate competition to design, build and drive solar powered cars cross country in a time/distance rally event. Of the 24 teams participating since 2010, three are from Illinois – Illinois State University, Northwestern University and Southern Illinois University. Illinois State University’s Solar Car Team placed second in the 2013 Formula Sun Grand Prix, a national solar car race held in June in Austin, Texas. Imagine what these students may create next.
Solar schools spur student eco-imagination
The Illinois Solar Schools Program promotes the installation of 1 kW solar photovoltaic (PV) systems at K-12 schools. Schools are turned into science labs as students see
first-hand on a daily basis how sunlight is converted to electricity. By incorporating clean solar power into the classroom, the hope is that solar will be a normal and widely accepted energy source as students become adults and eventually homeowners themselves. Since the Solar Schools Program’s launch in 2006, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation has awarded over $2,100,000 in grants to almost 250 schools. Annually, each solar school installation will generate about 1,200 kWh of electricity and help avoid 1,350 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions. Schools can apply to the Clean Energy Foundation for a grant to cover up to $8,000 or 90% of the system and its installation costs, whichever is less. Climate Cycle has granted solar installations to 7 high schools and 4 elementary schools in Chicagoland. NRDC is working to help every school put up panels by launching a new Solar School initiative to raise funding through crowdsourcing. The ISEA Sunshine Scholars program trains teachers in grades 4-6 about hands-on solar projects. Participants receive lesson plans as well as tools for the classroom including a “build from scratch” solar car. A November 20th workshop is open to all grade school teachers and will be held at the Center for Green Technology, details here.
Solar inventors aid disaster relief
Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta met while studying architecture and design in graduate school. They shared an interest in solar lighting technology and wanted to design something to make a difference around the globe. They founded Chicago-based LuminAID, to develop affordable, renewable light to improve the comfort, safety, and survival of disaster victims. The compact, lightweight, inflatable, water-resistant, solar-powered light they designed ended up winning the 2012 Clean Energy Challenge. This solar innovation is now lighting up people’s lives in 25 countries. By purchasing the Give Light, Get Light Package, you’ll get one for yourself and another will be sent to someone in need. Over the past year, LuminAID distributed more than 4,000 lights in 15 countries. Watch this inspiring video:
Testing accelerates performance and adoption
In 2010, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority began a three-year partnership with Argonne National Laboratory to collaborate on energy efficiency initiatives. As part of this effort, Argonne’s Midwest Photovoltaic Analysis Facility has been conducting a real-world, side-by-side study of solar panel technologies. A 5 kW test bed featuring five different modules and a weather station can be found at the Illinois Tollway’s Downers Grove headquarters. Another testing center is located at the 95 kW array on the Argonne campus. The goal is to determine which types of solar panels perform best under various environmental conditions in the Midwest region. Currently the Tollway authority uses some solar powered lighting, traffic sensors and cameras, especially in more remote areas. With 286 miles of interstate tollways in 12 northern Illinois counties, including I-88, I-355, I-90 and I-94/I-294/I-80, a long road lies ahead for solar possibilities.
Now you can drive on sunshine
More and more zero-carbon rides are roaming the streets of Chicagoland thanks to the emergence of electric vehicles (EVs) and solar charging canopies. Sharon Feigon, CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland (ATC), a nonprofit affiliate of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, points out while electric power is good, it mostly comes from dirty sources. Since introducing EVs to the IGO CarSharing fleet as the former CEO, she’s dreamed about of making electric cars truly emissions-free by harnessing the sun’s clean
energy. Thanks to three years of legwork by Feigon and ATC, and $1.5 million in grants from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, solar canopies are now “both possible and practical.” In addition to charging the public’s and I-GO’s EVs, any surplus power will be sold back to the grid. ATC solar canopy locations include Oak Park (20 kW, under construction), the Evanston Library is (10 kW), Uncommon Ground (20 kW) and IIT (20 kW). Non-ATC solar-powered EV charging stations include Northerly Island (2.4 kw) and Phillips Chevrolet (32 KW) in Frankfort. By the way, if you might like to win a 2014 Chevy Volt, purchase a raffle ticket from the Illinois Solar Energy Association here.
Local battery research will expand solar
As USA Today notes, “better batteries could revolutionize solar and wind power.” When the sun doesn’t shine, battery storage can indirectly power homes and buildings. In the race to advance technology, the Department of Energy chose Argonne National Laboratory as the first
national “innovation hub” for batteries and energy storage. This hub, also known as the Joint Center for Energy Storage and Research (JCESR), received a $120 million grant for a collaborative effort among national laboratories, academia and business. JCESR’s ambitious goal is to develop batteries five times more powerful and five times less expensive in five years to support the nation’s electric grid and next generation vehicles. The Clean Energy Trust, the Midwest’s leading clean tech business accelerator, is partnered with Argonne National Laboratory to commercialize this technology.
Get fit with solar & human power
Eco Gym co-founders Michael Benso and Chris Gellings want to transform bodies and protect the planet at the same time. Eco Gym is the first and only 24/7 health club powered by human kinetic and solar energy in the world. Their unique power generation reward system reduces member’s monthly dues the more they work out. This encourages members to power the facility through their training and maximize their health. The Eco Gym opened its first location in Naperville in 2012 and has over 1,700 member committed to making a difference. The grand opening of their second location in Glenview (Pfingston Road) is October 19. Although the video below emphasizes a focus on sustainability, unfortunately I cannot elaborate on the solar system used, despite repeated information requests.
Utilities warming up to solar
Savvy energy players are moving into solar. The acquisition of Chicago-based SoCore Energy, which designs and installs large scale rooftop solar panel systems for big box retailers and commercial/industrial properties, by California’s Edison International is a promising energy market trend. Another example of utilities diversification with solar is wind giant NextEra’s recent acquisition of Smart Energy Capital, a commercial solar project developer. Julia Hamm of SEPA suggested that utilities companies “need to be a solution instead of a barrier. Solar is where we are headed.”
Solar energy required
Illinois has set renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require 25% of our energy be generated from renewable sources by 2025, and a certain portion must come from solar energy. For example, this year 7% of power come from renewable, and .5% of this from solar. By 2025, the solar carve out will escalate to 6%, driving a stronger market for solar power. In theory, RPS will stimulate local growth in the renewable and solar energy industry. However, some loopholes in the existing laws and municipal aggregation complications are jeopardizing the effectiveness of this policy. The Illinois legislature is currently negotiating to reform the flaws and bolster the RPS law. According to Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, “fixing RPS could be a tipping point for solar and renewable energy in Illinois.” David Roberts of Grist takes a deep dive on this issue in“How to make Illinois into a clean-energy leader.”
Solar rebates sweeten deals
Illinois offers significant savings for homeowners and businesses to install solar water heat, photovoltaics and solar pool heating as a measure to drive in-state solar projects. In 2013, the Solar Rebate Program offered a 30%, up to $10,ooo residential incentive, and a $10,000-$20,000 or 25% of solar PV business incentive. These applications are now based on a lottery system, available until the money runs out for the fiscal year. Commercial grants up to
$250,000 are also available, based on merit. The program is funded through a special energy fee collected by utilities and does not impact the struggling state budget or other worthy programs. This program expires in 2015 and must be regularly reauthorized. Despite growing interest from homeowners and businesses, funding levels have remained the same since the Renewable Energy Resources Trust Fund was founded in Illinois in 1999. In other states with higher funding levels, such as New York (20x more), New Jersey (30x more) and California (100x more), solar installations have eclipsed Illinois. Currently, the Federal government offers an uncapped tax credit of 30% of the installed value of solar projects. This program is set to expire in 2016 and there has been much discussion about its future design and implementation. Although the industry is believed to be on course for grid parity without incentives in the next 5-10 years, it is believed that the continuation of this program in the short run will continue to spur growth and development, further decreasing installation costs. Parity with conventional energy federal subsidies would be great too! See the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) for an overview of available rebates and incentives by state here.
More solar carrots
As another incentive to install systems, revenue sources may help solar generators recover the system’s costs sooner. Not to long ago, solar power generators had a hard time selling surplus power back to their utilities. Net metering laws now allow homeowners and businesses to interconnect to the electric company’s grid and get credit for the excess power generated by their solar systems (up to 2 MW). Recently, with the vast increase in community aggregation, it has come to the Illinois Commerce Commission attention that not all electricity providers are compliant with Illinois Net Metering laws. In fact, many Alternate Retail Energy Suppliers (ARES) do not offer net metering to solar/wind customers. Word to the wise – if you own solar or plan to purchase it in the next year, you should contact your supplier to find out their policies and application process. ComEd may be the safer choice until the dust settles on this one. Not to complicate things, but another potential revenue stream is Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). Illinois renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and solar carve out requirements demand utilities to purchase a portion of electricity from qualified solar providers. Utilities can meet these requirements by purchasing SRECs, or the monetized value of solar energy produced, from homeowners and businesses with certified solar systems. A viable SREC market is not yet functioning in Illinois, however attempts to reform RPS law are underway to fix this problem.
Chicago has cut red tape and “soft” costs
The City of Chicago has made putting solar on rooftops easier, cheaper and faster than ever. Thanks to a
SUNShot Rooftop Challenge $750,000 grant, the City has updated permitting and zoning processes to better accommodate solar. Small rooftop solar PV systems (under 13.44kw) can apply to the City’s Easy Permit Process (EPP). Qualifying projects now move through an expedited process, shortened from thirty days to one day. Fees have also been reduced by 25%, from $375 to $275. Some paperwork can even be filed electronically. While the hard costs of solar panels are falling, the non-hardware costs, such as permit fees and infrastructure incompatibilities, can be a barrier. SUNShot’s goal is to reduce this. Ideally all municipalities throughout Illinois will work to simplify and streamline the permitting process, ensuring clean energy is cost effective on all levels. States like New York are looking to adopt a statewide solar permitting process, eliminating costly research efforts for system owners and installers.
Illinois has clean energy friendly policy makers
Fortunately some folks and groups are working to protect and expand solar (and other forms of renewable energy) in Illinois. Smart policies and incentives are critical in breaking down solar barriers. The Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) educates and mobilizes members and the general public on policies that affect clean energy development. Environmental advocacy groups, including the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Illinois Environmental Council and Environment Illinois, are also working to help solar thrive. Relevant bills currently in session are listed here. Our elected local, state and federal officials need to know we are interested in creating a clean energy future!
Fortunately many more solar brightspots can be found throughout Chicagoland and Illinois (not featured here). Looking forward to seeing plenty more!
. . .
Thanks for your insight:
Lisa Albrecht, Solar Service Inc., ISEA and a presenter for the Climate Reality Project
Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at Environmental Law & Policy Centre (ELPC)
Pete Kadens, SoCore Energy , President
Brandon Leavitt, Solar Service, President, Owner
Raja Krishnamoorthi, President at Sivananthan Laboratories and President, Director at InSPIRE
Sharon Feigon, CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland
Seth Darling, Argonne National Laboratory, Nanoscientist
Brian Wagner, Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, Environmental Tollway
Rhone Resch, Solar Power International, President and CEO
Julia Hamm, Solar Electric Power Association, President and CEO
written by Amanda Hanley