The Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. Credit: straightedge217 / Flickr / Creative Commons

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After backing competing clean energy bills, solar advocates and developers have reportedly united behind a small, short-term funding extension proposal.

Illinois solar developers and advocates are racing to secure a “funding bridge” for the state’s depleted solar incentives during a short lame duck legislative session expected to end Tuesday night or Wednesday.

The last-ditch effort comes on the eve of the new legislature being sworn in. The solar industry and its supporters say comprehensive energy legislation will be needed, but an immediate, short-term fix would help it survive until then. 

All of the state’s available funding for solar incentives recently expired. Advocates and solar developers have long backed competing proposed clean energy legislation, but now they are reportedly united in pushing for relatively small legislative changes that would free up funding for solar by extending a now-expired deadline by which funds collected from ratepayers for renewables can be used. If the deadline is not extended, the funds will be returned to ratepayers.

Utilities and some lawmakers have preferred this result, citing the economic stress of the pandemic, but solar advocates note that the refunds for any given ratepayer will be small and will take a long time to be disbursed. Meanwhile if emergency funding for solar incentives is not secured immediately, they argue, irreparable damage will be done to the state’s solar industry.

“We have $300 to $400 million ready to go out the door to support the solar energy workforce,” said Jessica Collingsworth, senior policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It would create about a three to four month funding bridge for solar companies and their employees to survive until comprehensive energy legislation is passed this spring.” 

The industry boomed after the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) in 2016, but available funds for incentives ran out this fall and solar companies have already made significant layoffs. They expect solar development in the state will nearly cease until new incentive funding is available. 

In addition to extending the deadline to revive funding for the adjustable block program created by FEJA, solar advocates are also hoping to pass an equity component that would make up to $17.5 million available in upfront grants for projects in environmental justice communities developed by local, small and disadvantaged business enterprises and community-based organizations, prioritizing developers of color.

An amendment to the state’s public utilities act introduced as of Tuesday morning did not include this equity seed funding, but did include a set-aside in funding for projects by women-owned, minority-owned or disadvantaged businesses, and a commitment to a prevailing wage for projects over 500kw.

Typically funds are not disbursed until a solar installation is energized, making it harder for developers without significant capital to get into the market. The Clean Energy Jobs Act — backed by community and environmental groups — includes extensive equity provisions, and supporters of the competing legislation — Path to 100 — have also emphasized their commitment to equity, though their bill does not contain many specifics on that front. 

Once the new legislative session gets underway, supporters of both bills plan to keep pushing for their respective comprehensive proposals. 

Backers of CEJA were apparently the first to propose the legislative fix, and now a statement provided by the Path to 100 coalition noted that: “Given the short timeframe and extraordinary challenges of the lame duck session, we would support the short-term funding fix proposed by the governor’s administration to maintain jobs and keep the state’s renewable energy program open.” 

State Rep. Will Davis, a leader of the Black Caucus and proponent of Path to 100, is reportedly taking the lead on pushing for the legislative fix in the lame duck session. 

While time to pass the fix is short, advocates involved in the negotiations are trying to remain optimistic. 

“I’m hopeful legislators will really see the need to support thousands of solar workers equitably, this is emergency relief for those workers,” said Collingsworth. 

“The lens of opposition is ratepayer relief, but it’s important to note that these funds wouldn’t go back to ratepayers any time soon, probably not until 2022, and it would be too little too late to be effective relief,” added John Delurey, Midwest campaigns director of advocacy group Vote Solar,. “The funding should be used for the purposes it was designed for — building a clean energy economy. Now is the best policy time to deploy those funds to build that funding bridge. If we don’t we will be rebuilding the clean energy economy on the rubble of the FEJA.”

Kari Lydersen

Kari has written for Midwest Energy News since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.