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What Illinois Gets Right About Solar: 5 Lessons for the Nation

For over a year now, understanding the growing solar market in Illinois has been a significant part of my work at AC Power. It has been challenging, educational, and, honestly, fun to learn about Illinois' solar incentive programs and collaborate with stakeholders to bring our projects to life. Illinois has become an excellent market for solar developers, and through the Illinois Power Agency (IPA), the state is contributing significantly to the country’s energy transition and sustainability goals.

But what makes the state shine when it comes to harnessing the sun’s energy? Here are five elements to Illinois’ solar market that other states would do well to adopt.

1. Illinois has a Community Solar Program

Having a program that allows for community solar projects is a significant clean energy advantage that many states in the US lack. A community solar project typically consists of a solar farm/array up to 5MWAC (which is relatively small), and the surrounding community can then purchase the clean energy generated at a discounted rate compared to traditional electricity. This enables individuals who cannot install panels on their property – whether because of prohibitive costs, lack of available space, or otherwise – to sign up for clean energy. For us as solar developers, it provides a clear offtaker (or end user) for the energy our projects generate and allows us to sell energy at the residential rate, thereby providing an economic path forward for a project. States often start with a pilot program, which is further developed and finalized after one or two years of testing and feedback from stakeholders.

2. Illinois has a REAL Community Solar Program

Let’s be real, there are some community solar programs out there that are just… not really community solar. These programs fail to achieve one of the main goals of any renewable energy incentives program: to incentivize clean energy development. These community solar programs are often run by electric utilities and developed, built, and operated by them, leaving little room for developers and investors. In such states, fewer community solar projects come online, and. some programs fail to provide any incentive to subscribers. In fact, some subscribers pay a premium to participate. According to the US Department of Energy, a true community solar program should benefit low- and moderate-income households. A program that does not offer economic benefits to subscribers or increase the number of projects coming online is not a real community solar program.

3. Illinois provides incentives for Solar on low-value land

While we are eager to transition from polluting energy systems to clean energy, it's a fact that renewable projects can be contentious. Solar projects require land, and developers usually opt for “greenfields” – land that could otherwise be used for farming, housing, recreation, etc. Using this "good land" for projects can lead to strong community pushbacks, including moratoriums on solar developments. Policies that incentivize the redevelopment of land for solar energy generation are a smart way to support renewables while avoiding pushbacks. As brownfield redevelopers, we see this all the time. Communities are much more receptive to projects that revitalize land that has been a nuisance rather than using virgin land. The Illinois Shines Program, for example, awards extra points to ‘Traditional Community Solar Projects’ sited on disturbed or contaminated land, preferencing development on these sites and helping them move forward.

4. Illinois has a user-friendly website with up-to-date information

Simple and so effective. The IPA has a good website, but Illinois Shines’ is just a delight. It is well-designed, easy to navigate and updated weekly, if not more often. As Senior Director of Business Development & Strategy Juliet Brooks would say “it makes me happy.” Their website is the tab I never close on my computer. Is all the information on the website and documents clear and easy to understand? No, but there are people available to help you understand it, and they are continuously improving their material. Once you learn to read the graphs and tables, it becomes more straightforward.

5. Illinois has good, easy, and fast communication channels

The IPA has built a well-informed and capable team committed to supporting developers and consumers through various communication channels, including webinars, office hours, workshops, and regular phone/email contacts. The thoroughness of the information provided can be overwhelming, which is why it's crucial to have easy access to real people who can answer questions. I have never waited long to get someone on the phone and usually receive email responses within a few days. Not to mention how friendly, courteous, and helpful they all are. I have become a regular at the Illinois Shines weekly office hours, where I seek clarification on program guidelines, dates, and other questions I have. I love it, and hopefully, they don’t get tired of seeing my face there (shoutout to the OH team!).

The truth is that, as solar developers focused on redeveloping previously disturbed land to bring benefits to local communities across the country, we have found a lot of support to our mission, goals, and values in Illinois. My wish is to see other states follow Illinois’ example so we can contribute to the global energy transition, one brownfield at a time.


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