Credit: Archigeek / Creative Commons

Almost a year after Illinois enacted a sweeping energy bill, Chicago-area developers, advocates, and government agencies are hustling to prepare local communities to take full advantage of state incentives coming in the next few years.

Many are eyeing grants and other opportunities to develop community solar in underserved neighborhoods, and see it as a chance to bolster the local economy, create jobs, all while reducing emissions.

The Future Energy Jobs Act calls for 2,700 MW of solar in Illinois by 2030, including 400 MW of community solar through a state mandated adjustable block program. That figure is nearly double the amount of community solar that existed across the entire U.S. in 2016.

“There is a big pot of money to support solar in Illinois,” Jon Carson, managing partner with developer Trajectory Solar, told a crowd of Chicagoans gathered at a clean energy town hall in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago on Monday night.

Still, he said, there’s no geographic guarantee of where the money will go, and he said the residents of Pilsen should be involved in the production of clean energy. But they must organize and apply. “We want to make sure the public sector is supported by these funds,” he said.

“I promise you, there is someone in Bentonville, Arkansas who is making sure as much of that money as possible is used to put solar on top of every Walmart in Illinois,” Carson said. His solar startup focuses on behind-the-meter and community solar projects.

Statewide, the production of community solar is projected to produce over 10,000 construction period jobs, generate $1.39 billion in construction benefit money, and offset the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of about 350,000 homes per year.

Illinois utilities have started designs for community solar programs under the new energy law, and officials in Cook County are also hurrying with their own preparations.

Last month, Cook County officials published an economic and environmental analysis of community solar in the area and will soon release 15 case studies for local projects that include engineering reports, solar designs, and financial plans tailored for the site owner, developer, and subscribers.

“We have been doing a lot of work to get ready for this,” said Deborah Stone, Cook County’s chief sustainability officer. Each business model is designed to be replicated. Cook County looked at how community solar could work on public housing, at parks, landfills, and other locations.

Still, she acknowledged that there are “advantages and challenges in terms of siting community solar.” Land, space, and labor are more expensive in Cook County then elsewhere in Illinois, she said. “But we think that providing some of the tools and financial analysis, we can overcome some of these obstacles.”

State Rep. Theresa Mah, a Democrat whose district includes Pilsen, helped organize the town hall. She said she wanted her constituents to hear how they can take advantage of the resources that are available to them through the Future Energy Jobs Act.

While per capita income is high for Chicago, there is still widespread inequality in the city.

“My personal view is that clean energy and green energy shouldn’t be limited to communities with resources or higher levels of education that have knowledge of these topics,” Mah said. “I represent a very diverse district. It’s working class immigrants that live in the districts that I represent and I want to make sure they don’t get bypassed.”

Elba Aranda-Suh, executive director of the National Latino Education Institute, also spoke and encouraged residents to get involved in the energy sector. Her organization was one of the six business and social institutions that won funding to conduct job training programs as part of the Future Energy Jobs Act. A total of $30 million was allocated for solar training programs, apprenticeships, and multicultural training for individuals.

“On the business side and the technical side, there are so many different levels [of opportunity],” she told the crowd. “But underserved communities are not yet accessing the opportunities.”