A rooftop solar installation. Photo by John Callas


MeLena Hessel

A Groundbreaking for Illinois’ Solar Market

Today’s re-opening of the Illinois Shines program will help get renewable energy back on track

The Illinois solar industry has been hanging on the edge. For at least the last year, and longer for larger projects, there was no funding for the state’s renewables programs and, without funding, no prospect for new solar and other renewable energy projects to go forward.

But today, the Illinois’ rooftop and community solar program – Illinois Shines – is reopening.* As a result of a huge commitment to fighting climate change from the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act passed earlier this year, an important program is starting up again.

Long-planned projects can start to move forward now after lingering for months, making Illinois cleaner and healthier while helping in the fight against climate change.

Think of today as the groundbreaking on a long-planned construction project. It’s the culmination of years of planning, but it also means the work is just beginning.

Keep the Receipts

After decades of facing the public health, environmental, and climate impacts of coal and other dirty fuel, Illinois started setting targets for how much of its power should come from solar, wind, or other renewable resources in the early 2000s.

That first target – a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), to use the jargon – was set in 2007. The initial 25% goal was the first time Illinois put hard numbers on our move to clean energy and was an important step forward for the state.

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act passed earlier this year doubled the RPS goal. Now the goal is to have 50% renewable power by the year 2040. But the only way to prove we’ve met that goal that is to keep the receipts. Those receipts are called Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).

RECs and Effect

When people ask what Renewable Energy Credits are, I normally say it’s a little bit like owning stock in a company. You can’t hold a stock or a REC in your hand, but owning stock is how you legally own a piece of a company, and owning (or “retiring”) a REC is how you legally use renewable energy. Illinois can’t move to renewable power without them.

Every time a solar panel, wind turbine, or other source of renewable energy generates one megawatt-hour of electricity – about enough power to run a refrigerator for two years – the people behind the project get assigned one REC. That’s true whether the power was generated from a massive, utility-owned wind farm or from a small solar panel on your roof. If you generated the renewable energy, you are assigned the REC to keep, retire, or sell as you please.

These credits bring accountability to renewable energy. Once electrons are zapped onto the grid, there’s no way to tell whether or not that electron is from a wind turbine or a nuclear plant or a coal facility or what. It’s just swimming on the grid with its million other electron brethren. Retiring RECs is the proof that companies and governments are actually moving to renewable power, not just claiming they’re going green.

How Illinois Shines

In Illinois, individual home and business owners work with state-approved vendors – often the developers who sold them the solar system – to sell their RECs. The state administers the sales through a program called Illinois Shines, which buys RECs in large blocks, paying for 15 years’ worth of RECs, often in advance. This money can be guaranteed to the projects before they’re even started, helping cut the up-front costs of installing solar.

But the program was a victim of its own success and ran out of funding short of achieving its renewable energy goals. Community solar (shared, off-site) projects, large DG programs like solar on farms or big box stores, small distributed generation (DG) programs like rooftop panels for homes – one by one these blocks ran out of space, leaving important energy projects on endless waitlists.

Until today!

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act fully funded Illinois Shines earlier this year. Sales of RECs from both rooftop and community solar blocks re-open today, with three new blocks opening: Public Schools, Community-Driven Community Solar, and Equity-Eligible Contractor projects. As many projects from re-opened blocks were conditional on selling the RECs, this means long-held contracts will soon become solar panels, clean energy, and jobs across the state.

The Bigger Picture

RECs are a compliance mechanism; the one way the state can prove we’ve hit that 50% renewable energy target and move us toward 100% clean energy. But they’re more than just an accounting method.

The more investment there is in the renewables market, the more that market grows. Renewable energy begets renewable energy.

Long-planned projects can start to move forward now after lingering for months, making Illinois cleaner and healthier while helping in the fight against climate change. It’s the day homeowners and businesses who had been on the fence about solar were waiting for, meaning new projects will follow.

The more investment there is in the renewables market, the more that market grows. New solar and wind companies enter the field, and existing companies expand their renewable offerings. The market becomes more competitive, giving consumers lower prices and more choices.

Renewable energy begets renewable energy, moving us all toward a healthier world.

* Note: Illinois’ low-income Solar for All program never ceased throughout this period, and continues to be another great option for expanding solar throughout the state. Click here to see if you qualify or to learn more about Solar for All and how it compliments the Illinois Shines program.

MeLena Hessel,

Senior Policy Advocate

MeLena Hessel is a Senior Policy Advocate working on clean energy development and access as well as clean transportation initiatives.

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