Chicago Tribune: ELPC’s MeLena Hessel Explains Community Solar

Want Solar Panels, but Can’t Afford Them? Cook County’s Working to Set Up Co-ops
April 3, 2017
By Cheryl V. Jackson

Solar panels are cheaper than ever, but many renters, condo-owners and low-income families aren’t able to take advantage of the flaming ball of energy in the sky.

A Cook County project is working to change that, helping set up new solar energy co-ops that would let people who can’t install their own solar panels tap into a shared pool of power.

The Department of Environmental Control and partner groups are laying the groundwork for solar panels at 15 pilot sites across the county, including determining how to outfit property with panels for community-shared solar power, assess subscriber interest and market to users.

Community solar allows power from a single solar array to be shared by numerous households and businesses in a community. Through the systems, individuals would be able to “rent” panels and get reduced electric bills.

It’s part of the Cook County Solar Market Pathways project, funded by a 2014 $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The grant won’t pay for the actual installation of solar panels, but it will provide reports and analysis that’ll pave the way.

The project also looks at the community solar marketplace in the county, identifies suitable available sites and demand, and analyzes the economics of different ownership models.

The county hopes the pilot sites — a mix of sizes and uses across the county, including schools, business and vacant land — can serve as models for groups associated with similar buildings or property.

Aiding residents and organizations in accessing solar energy is important to the county’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, said Deborah Stone, Cook County’s chief sustainability officer and director of the Department of Environmental Control.

“We’re making really good progress at our own buildings, but there’s 1.9 million buildings in Cook County. There’s over 5 million residents. We’re not going to make an impact unless we help the community,” she said.

About 75 percent of households can’t install solar on their roofs because they rent, don’t get enough sun, have structural issues or can’t afford the upfront installation costs, according to Elevate Energy, one of the county’s partners in the program.

About 42 percent of Cook County households live in rental units, and another 16 percent live in condos, Stone said.

“And because we have such income disparities in Cook County, we have a large portion of residents who wouldn’t have enough savings or upfront cash to invest in solar, we’re not going to make headway on our sustainability goals unless we can make solar accessible to everybody,” she said.

The solar market in Illinois is growing after the passage last fall of an energy bill that calls for creation of community solar programs. The law provides credits on electric bills to subscribers who buy or lease solar panels in such programs, said MeLena Hessel, policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which pushed for the legislation and is also a partner in the Cook County project.

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