Sharon Smaller, OTR grants specialist, walks on the rooftop of Hill Arboretum Apartments. Credit: David Unger / Midwest Energy News

The central mission of Over The Rainbow (OTR), a nonprofit that provides housing across northern Illinois for adults with physical disabilities, has nothing to do with producing cleaner, more efficient energy. And yet, if all goes according to plan, its Hill Arboretum Apartments in Evanston, Illinois will be home to an innovative foray into community solar.

Last month, Cook County officials selected OTR’s Hill Arboretum as one of 15 pilot sites for a program aimed at tackling a problem that has long vexed solar deployment: How do you get photovoltaic panels to people who don’t own their own roof or whose roof isn’t conducive to harnessing the power of the sun?

The Cook County Solar Market Pathways project originally launched in 2015 with $1.2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The immediate goal is to develop case studies and engineering assessments for each pilot site, with the hope that the lessons learned can facilitate access to solar power in the next five years for at least 30,000 Cook County residents who would not otherwise have access to the technology.

“This has the potential for serving almost anybody who gets an electric bill,” says Deborah Stone, Cook County’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “I’m a little concerned that as the grid gets more and more complicated and more and more smart, that those people who have resources and time and access to information are going to be able to benefit from that and the people remaining … are going to be the ones who are poor, who have kids, who have elderly parents, who are working three jobs and commuting on two buses to get to them and don’t have time to figure this all out. They’re going to be left bearing the higher costs.

“This is hopefully a big step to avoiding that kind of future for our energy grid.”

Eric Huffman, executive director of OTR, says the group applied to participate in the project because of its potential “in terms of energy reduction for us as a not-for-profit and also cheaper [energy] bills [for the residents]. We also wondered if there could be some benefit to the immediate community … a way of giving back to the neighborhood. And, of course, we have other buildings, so if it works as a pilot, could it potentially work at other locations?”

‘Shared solar’

Just under half of both households and businesses in the U.S. are unable to host a solar photovoltaic system, according to a 2015 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). In Cook County, which encompasses Chicago and much of its environs, officials put the number as high as 75 percent.

For many, the solution is community solar, sometimes called “shared solar,” which allocates  “the electricity of a jointly owned or leased system to offset individual consumers’ electricity bills, allowing multiple energy consumers to share the benefits of a single solar array,” as NREL defines it. Generally speaking, consumers can “subscribe” to a community solar array that is not directly tied to their individual energy use and is either jointly owned or leased from a third party. Individual users then receive credits on their bills based on their share of the array’s total generation. NREL estimates shared solar it could represent 32 percent to 49 percent of the distributed solar photovoltaic market by 2020.

Community solar is a seemingly simple solution to a problem that threatens to constrain solar’s spread, but, as the Cook County project demonstrates, the devil is in the details. In order to get off the ground, community solar projects often have to address a lot of unanswered questions about who finances what part of the system, how multiple customers will be billed or credited by a single meter, and how various tax breaks and incentives apply or don’t apply. There’s also the usual technical challenges that come with integrating variable, renewable energy onto a grid that was traditionally designed for baseload generation. Perhaps most difficult of all comes with educating consumers about a system that does not yet exist in the area.

“In a way the biggest hurdle is that there’s nothing around here to point to to show people how it actually works,” Stone says. “It’s now booming in Minnesota, there’s a lot in Colorado and California, but [for] people around here, there’s no place they can go to talk to somebody they relate with in the community to find out about it.”

Cook County has partnered with utility ComEd, nonprofits Elevate Energy and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the City of Chicago and technical consultant West Monroe Partners, to develop answers to these technical, economic and policy challenges. The group has already begun assessing the 15 pilot sites, and it plans to report back on their findings later this year.

Last December, community solar advocates got a boost from the Illinois General Assembly’s passing of the Future Energy Jobs Act, which officially launched the state’s community solar program and which provides up to $200 million for rooftop solar and community solar projects in low-income communities.

‘A win-win’

For OTR, the addition of rooftop solar would represent more than just a potential economic and environmental boon for its residents. It would also build on a legacy of bringing new resources to a community that has long felt overlooked.

Hill Arboretum is located in a low-income, largely African-American Evanston ward. It occupies a one-story building on a quiet street with a wide, flat, unobstructed roof that “just screams solar,” as Sharon Smaller, grants specialist at OTR, puts it. The building was originally built in 1952 as a hospital to serve a growing population of black Evanstonians who were not admitted to local Chicago and Evanston hospitals because of their race. The Community Hospital of Evanston operated under the guidance of Dr. Elizabeth Webb Hill for decades before ultimately closing in the mid 1970s. A portrait of Dr. Hill still hangs in the hallway of Hill Arboretum.

There are several hurdles that must be overcome before panels are actually installed at the former hospital. Most notably, the DOE-funded project covers only the assessment of the sites, not the actual installation. But Huffman remains hopeful that OTR can provide a space for solar in the community.

“If we can figure out how to do it, we look at this as a kind of a win-win both for us as a not-for-profit and also for the residents who live here – and also for the community, too,” says Huffman.

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.