November 19, 2021
Promoting Community-Driven Community Solar in Illinois
Community solar can help build wealth and advance clean energy across Illinois, but state agencies need to hear from diverse voices to get it right
Recent legislation requires Illinois’ solar program to include community-driven community solar projects that benefit the communities which they serve and that diversify project types. Now is the time to ensure that all communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, are owners of that change. Community-driven community solar allows communities to take an active role in the energy transition. At ELPC we are working in conjunction with solar developers, state agencies, and other non-profit organizations to ensure that this happens through providing stakeholder feedback to the Illinois Power Agency’s Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan.
When people think of solar, they think of rooftop solar panels or huge solar farms with thousands of panels. Community solar is the middle ground between these two poles. Community solar allows homeowners, renters, and businesses to purchase shares of a community solar project who then receive credits on their electricity bill for their share of the power produced. Community solar has many benefits. It supports renewable energy by helping the transition from fossil fuels, increases regional grid resiliency, and helps subscribers save money. Now imagine community solar projects that also include meaningful community involvement, benefits, and even ownership. This is the time to advocate for that as one important community solar model under Illinois’ solar program.
In September, Illinois passed SB2408, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA). Under CEJA, the Illinois Power Agency (IPA) is tasked with updating their Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan. This plan describes the implementation of Illinois’ community solar program (among other things). As part of the update, the IPA solicits comments from relevant stakeholders.
CEJA states (Section 1-75(c)(1)(K)(v)) that Illinois’ solar program must include:
At least 5% from community-driven community solar projects intended to provide more direct and tangible connection and benefits to the communities which they serve or in which they operate and, additionally, to increase the variety of community solar locations, models, and options in Illinois.
Input and leadership from community organizations and their allies is vital to ensure that community-driven community solar truly is for communities. Concepts such as ownership, benefits, and meaningful involvement that seem straightforward on paper are messy in concrete practice. With the assistance of the very communities that CEJA is meant to benefit, we can shape a long-term plan that lays the groundwork for a just and equitable energy transition.
The Big Questions for Comment
What does community ownership look like?
Community ownership takes many forms from cooperatives in the Midwest and elsewhere to community groups forming LLCs. Ownership can take place immediately or it may happen over time as the community gradually pays off a loan. Presumably, community ownership also means that community members participate in decisions regarding the governance, operation, maintenance, and upgrades of and to that facility. What does community ownership mean for you and your community? What are good examples of community-owned assets?
What is community wealth building?
Is a one-time influx of wealth into a community sufficient or should a project continually generate wealth for a community? How should that wealth be distributed? What are some examples? Community solar has the potential to not only generate power for a community, but also wealth. Groups around the country are working to create community solar that builds equity for future improvements or credits subscribers for excess electricity produced. By providing feedback on what community-wealth building means to you and your community as well as to whom and how that wealth should be distributed, we can craft community solar policy that ensures that wealth stays in the communities where it is generated.
What are direct and indirect community benefits?
The wealth generated by community solar is only one benefit. Others include community empowerment, job creation, educational opportunities, and more. What could be a direct benefit of community solar for your community? What could be some possible indirect benefits? What sorts of benefits should a community receive for a solar project to count as “community-driven”?
What is meaningful involvement and engagement?
A project cannot claim to be community-driven without meaningful involvement and engagement. One example of involvement could be a community creating a request for proposal (RFP) that solicits bids from contractors to complete a project. How else can your community be meaningfully involved in project development or engage after it is completed in project operations and management? What sort of proof should be needed to demonstrate this engagement? Do you know of examples of meaningful engagement around a community development or initiative?
For more information see the IPA’s full list of questions for Community-Driven Community Solar (starting p. 5). To encourage community-driven community solar we need communities to tell us what community-driven means to them. Providing comments on the IPA’s Long Term Plan is one important way of doing so!