Illinois Solar Companies Say They Are ‘Held Hostage’ by Statehouse Gridlock

The end of state incentives means rooftop solar installers are living through a summer of misery.

Pete Southerton (left) and Tom Bradshaw, of solar energy contractor Certasun, install solar panels on a Northwest Side home, Monday afternoon, May 17, 2021. Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Pete Southerton (left) and Tom Bradshaw, of solar energy contractor Certasun, install solar panels on a Northwest Side home, Monday afternoon, May 17, 2021. Credit: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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This article is the result of a partnership between Inside Climate News and the Chicago Sun-Times.

The number of rooftop solar installations in Illinois has plummeted, as state incentives for consumers have dried up amid a standoff in the Legislature over major energy legislation.

After a state incentive program ran out of money late last year, just 313 small rooftop solar projects were completed statewide in the three-month period ending June 30, compared with 2,908 a year earlier, Illinois Power Agency records show. Those numbers account for most of the rooftop solar projects done in Illinois.

The state program helped reduce the cost of adding solar to a home by thousands of dollars.

The funding problems also have idled hundreds of workers, hurting a fledgling, once fast-growing industry.

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Unless legislators can send a fix to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker by the end of the month, solar business owners warn that the situation could get even worse.

“The story here is whether those Illinois legislators are going to choose the future or, frankly, choose the past,” said Josh Lutton, president of Certasun, a Chicago-area solar panel installer.

The number of Certasun’s solar installations this year is half what it was last year at this time, according to Lutton, who has furloughed dozens of workers as a result of the legislative stand-off.

Lawmakers agreed months ago on details of expanded state funding for solar power. But that plan is part of a broader energy bill that’s been held up by disagreements over state aid for three Exelon nuclear power plants and a proposed phasing out of coal and natural gas.

Saving the nuclear plants and thousands of jobs together has been the centerpiece of the legislation. Exelon threatened to close two nuclear plants—in Byron and Morris—this fall unless the energy bill gets passed this month.

Lisa Albrecht, owner of All Bright Solar in Chicago, warned lawmakers more than a year ago that, without a fix this year to continue the state incentives to buy and install solar panels, consumer demand would plunge.

“It’s been really challenging,” Albrecht said.

That drop in demand can be seen in the bottom line numbers of solar businesses. 

Michelle Knox, owner of WindSolarUSA, a renewable energy consultant and project manager in Springfield, said her business lost about $6,400 through mid-June, compared with a profit of about $34,000 at the same point last year.

“The uncertainty is creating chaos,” Knox said.

Last year, Illinois counted 5,526 jobs in the solar industry, down 391 jobs from 2019, according to the Clean Jobs Midwest report from Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs.

That figure doesn’t include layoffs this year, when the effects of the pandemic and uncertainty over state funding put pressure on solar companies to cut costs.

Solar industry business operators say layoffs, which they estimate to be in the hundreds, show only part of the picture because, despite past demand, companies are slow to add jobs with the uncertainty about incentives.

In 2016, Illinois ramped up its solar incentives with the Future Energy Jobs Act, a law that combined nuclear bailouts with large investments in renewable energy. But some of the renewable energy programs took years to get running and were overwhelmed by demand that far exceeded funding.

Illinois lawmakers were unable to agree on an energy bill at the end of the legislative session in May and asked environmentalists, unions and solar industry representatives to work out an agreement.

The impasse has little to do with the solar industry. It’s centered on the fate of natural gas and coal plants, including the Prairie State facility in southern Illinois that’s financially backed by dozens of Illinois towns, including Naperville and Batavia.

Senate President Don Harmon has said he’d like to call senators back to Springfield at the end of the month to vote on an energy bill. The Illinois House also would need to return to take its own vote.

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At the beginning of August, a group representing unions, led by the Illinois AFL-CIO, told Pritzker it was unable to reach an agreement with the environmental groups.

Referring to an agreement to keep Prairie State open through 2045, a change from the previous plan to close it in 2035, Pritzker responded: “I have negotiated in good faith as pro-coal forces have shifted the goalposts throughout this process.” 

Pat Devaney, secretary treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said unions don’t want to hold up the effort.

“We all have the same goals that we get to carbon-free generation,” Devaney said. “It’s just how we do it.”

This past week, Pritzker said at a news conference that he wants lawmakers to vote on a compromise. “This bill that’s before them now is about 97 percent agreed upon, so it’s just that last little bit that people have to come around,” he said.

Solar company managers and owners liken the legislative debate to a hostage situation, because popular provisions like the solar incentives are being delayed as a result of lawmakers’ insistence on passing a single energy bill that also includes more contentious and less popular proposals like the nuclear bailout.

“Everyone agrees that we need clean energy,”  Albrecht said. “But we are being held hostage.”