Can Illinois Handle a 2000% Jump in Solar Capacity? We’re About to Find Out.

A new state law could turn Illinois into a Midwest solar energy leader in just a few years. First, it has to build a solar industry almost from scratch.

Illinois has a lot of wind power but limited solar capacity. That's about to change fast under an ambitious renewable energy law. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Illinois has a lot of wind power but limited solar capacity. That's about to change under an ambitious new renewable energy law. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Illinois is about to learn what it takes to manage a nearly 20-fold increase in solar power.

A new state law requires utilities to dramatically increase their purchases of renewable energy, with a goal of getting at least 25 percent of the state's electricity from clean energy by 2025, a large part of it from solar.

For a state starting with very little solar power now—less than 100 megawatts—becoming a Midwest solar leader will mean building an industry infrastructure almost from scratch, and doing it fast.

To ramp up by the deadline, the state needs two things: workers and projects.

People involved in the effort describe an atmosphere of almost chaotic progress. State officials and clean energy advocates want Illinois to be a model for how to expand clean energy in a way that provides targeted help to the local communities.

"The stakes are high," said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a Chicago-based consumer advocacy group involved in the process. "I think we have a good plan and we have reasons to be optimistic in general, but there's no question we'll face some roadblocks and things we didn't think of."

Hundreds of people have enrolled in job-training programs across the state, organized by nonprofit groups as part of the law. Developers are submitting proposals for new solar projects. And some of the established developers are starting to complain that the process for selecting projects—designed to give a wide number of developers a chance—is flawed.

Catapulting Illinois to a Midwest Solar Leader

Illinois ranks 35th in the country in solar power right now, with 98 megawatts, less than 1 percent of its electricity generation. Development has been slow here in part because the state lacks the supportive policies from the government and utilities that have boosted solar elsewhere.

Five years from now, analysts expect to see nearly 2,000 megawatts of solar power in Illinois and the state in 17th place nationally, according to Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association. No other state has Illinois' combination of starting from so low and being on track to rise so high during that period.

"It's going to catapult Illinois to the forefront of the solar market, and put our state on the path to the renewable future we need to limit the worst impacts of climate change," said MeLena Hessel, policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Chart: Which states are adding the most solar capacity?

This boom in renewable energy stems from the state's Future Energy Jobs Act, a 2016 law that provided subsidies for two nuclear power plants and also set the target to get 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, among other requirements. The renewable energy provisions were part of a legislative compromise to get enough votes to approve the nuclear power subsidies. (The law was upheld by a federal court in September.)

The Illinois Power Agency earlier this year spelled out how the renewable energy programs would work.

The state's approach is unusual in part because of requirements that projects be located in the state or close to the state's borders, and that steps be taken to steer economic benefits to local communities and workers, Hessel said. In many other states, clean energy requirements can be met with projects that are nowhere near the home state, and few have job-training provisions.

The Illinois plan also places a heavy emphasis on small projects. One set of programs will help pay for scores of local projects, such as community arrays serving multiple subscribers, adding up to about 650 megawatts statewide. A portion of the new solar will also be used to reduce utility bills for low-income residents.

State regulators and utility companies will oversee the program. Charges on household bills, typically a dollar or two a month, will pay for it.

Like much of the Midwest, it's windy here, and most of the state's renewable energy today comes from wind farms. Illinois already has about 4,400 megawatts of wind energy, and that's expected to rise to 5,600 megawatts by the mid-2020s under the new law.

Now, the falling price of solar components and increasing efficiency of solar panels is starting to make solar projects more financially attractive, as well, in Illinois and across the country.

Building a Solar Workforce Almost from Scratch

Job training is a key part of the law, including provisions aimed at hiring people from minority communities. There is a social mission here along with the practical need to tap many sources of workers in a tight labor market.

Chris Williams, a solar installer and business owner, now spends much of his time in a classroom helping adult students learn to do what he does.

"These students typically come in knowing nothing about construction, nothing about solar energy," said Williams, who owns Millennium Solar Electric Construction and is teaching job-training courses in partnership with a Chicago nonprofit called Elevate. "We teach them job safety, how to use tools properly, the basics of electrical."

Most of his students complete the 12-week course, and most of them have job offers already, he said.

Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Illinois law and the state's rules for carrying it out emphasize job training and projects that serve local communities. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

His classes are part of one group of training programs run by nonprofits across the state that have slots for about 450 students. There are several other job programs, as well.

The challenge is making sure workers are available in the parts of the state where projects are selected. Program organizers say they are aware of this and will adjust as needed.

Big Challenge: How to Pick Projects Fairly

The other major challenge is choosing and launching all those solar projects.

Officials are now setting up a process for selecting the first wave of community solar projects. Developers, eager to participate, have submitted proposals that together are worth 10 times the funding available in some areas.

Those that are selected will get a 15-year contract to support their projects with renewable energy credits.

The Illinois Power Agency has said it will select the projects through a lottery. To enter, a developer must have a lease for land, local zoning approval, and an agreement with a utility to transport the electricity.

Some developers say this sets the bar too low, especially in parts of the state with no local zoning and where the utility has waived the usual fees on connection agreements. They say the ease of entering the lottery has contributed to the glut of applications, with a wide variation in the viability of plans that all have an equal chance of being selected.

"It's no way to run a market," said Kevin Borgia, Midwest policy director at Cypress Creek Renewables, one of the country's largest solar developers. He argued that it could mean some projects selected don't get completed, which would slow the progress of meeting the state's clean energy goals.

Anthony Star, director of the Illinois Power Agency, says the lottery has the advantage of not giving unfair favor to anyone. "The simple fact is that there are more projects available than there is funding available," he said.

There is still time for officials to change the process before the first lottery is scheduled to be held in early next year, and the Illinois Power Agency has asked participants for more comments on the process.

The entire undertaking is so large that some things will inevitably need to be changed as the state moves forward, said Kolata, from the Citizens Utility Board. But he said he is confident that the major elements of the law's implementation are on the right track.

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