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Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

A national environmental advocate and a utility watchdog group are teaming up on energy policy in Illinois — this time proposing a community solar pilot program with an eye toward making it more widely available by the end of the decade.

The proposal to the Illinois Commerce Commission, filed Monday by the Citizens Utility Board and Environmental Defense Fund, would enable development of four to five community solar energy systems of up to 2 megawatts each.

California, Colorado and New England have been pioneers in establishing community solar programs. But the concept is gaining traction in Minnesota and elsewhere as a key to expanding the market for distributed energy, including the many apartment and condominium residents and other customers unable to install solar arrays on roofs or properties (EnergyWire, Feb. 17).

“We’re encouraged by what we see across the country,” David Kolata, CUB’s executive director, said in an interview. “We think it’s a way to bring the benefits of distributed power to a lot of people.”

Illinois has a net metering law that allows utility customers to receive bill credits for excess energy put on the grid. But only about 300 customers in Commonwealth Edison’s territory in and around Chicago participate because many, particularly renters, lack money or space to install solar arrays, the filing said.

Andrew Barbeau, a consultant who submitted testimony to the ICC, cited a 2008 National Energy Renewable Laboratory study that showed only 22 to 27 percent of residential rooftop area is suitable for on-site photovoltaic solar systems. In dense urban settings like Chicago, it’s even more true because more than half of housing units are occupied by renters.

“In a new utility world of flowing electricity data and layered intelligence, we shouldn’t limit participation in the rapidly growing solar market to those inconvenienced by circumstance,” Barbeau said in a blog post.

The Illinois proposal calls for a three-year pilot program for ComEd customers in northern Illinois in which a “host” customer would recruit neighbors to invest in a project located within 5 miles of his or her home or business. Subscribers would then get a proportionate share of the credits for generation put back on the grid.

Kolata said results of the pilot would be analyzed with the goal of opening up all of ComEd’s or Ameren Illinois’ service areas for community solar projects by 2020.

The groups say community solar projects can benefit all utility customers because they can help ease congestion on the distribution grid and eliminate the need for power plants that are used only a few hours a year to meet peak summer demand.

In fact, under the proposed pilot program, one of the community solar projects would specifically be designed to help relieve distribution grid constraints — a possible alternative to a more costly transmission upgrade. It is envisioned that other projects would be developed as part of a microgrid at a landfill or brownfield site.

Statutory authority exists in Illinois under the state’s Public Utilities Act to enable community solar, according to the filing. And the many changes occurring with the utility industry — and specifically with ComEd’s service area — make the time right to capitalize on community solar, Kolata said.

Those changes include U.S. EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which should encourage additional renewable energy development. Solar equipment costs, meanwhile, continue to decline. And CUB and EDF are part of a coalition pushing for an expansion of the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency requirements that would include a specific provision for community solar (EnergyWire, Feb. 20).

The city of Chicago and Cook County, Ill., in January also received a $1.2 million award from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to identify the market for community solar in the area, as well as examine ownership structures and policy barriers.

Third try for solar

The community solar proposal is the third in the past year from CUB and EDF.

Last month, the groups filed a petition to expand “time of use” electricity pricing plans. They have also initiated efforts to provide customers better data about their electricity use and proposed a program to track reductions in greenhouse gas emissions directly from smart grid investments (EnergyWire, Sept. 17, 2014).

“It’s a good partnership,” Kolata said. “I think we have a lot of overlapping interests.”

All of the proposals are aimed at leveraging the $3.2 billion of smart grid investments being made in Illinois, much of it in ComEd’s service area.

ComEd, which distributes electricity throughout Chicago and northern Illinois, is in the midst of installing 4 million smart meters across its service area. While the new digital meters aren’t essential to making community solar available, it should make administrative work associated with “virtual” net metering easier.