A group of homes, many with rooftop solap
Credit: Werner Slocum / NREL

Solar and environmental justice advocates are hopeful that changes being made to an Illinois low-income solar program will help it finally catch on in the communities it was meant to serve.

Illinois Solar for All offers virtually free solar panels and guaranteed energy bill savings for residents who meet certain income or environmental justice criteria. Since its launch in 2017, though, relatively few people have taken advantage of the program and millions of allocated dollars remain unspent.

Stakeholders have pointed to various challenges and barriers with the program, but a big one has been that solar developers have no efficient way of marketing to potential customers. John Delurey, senior regional director for the nonprofit policy advocacy group Vote Solar, compared recruiting participants to finding a needle in a haystack.

“You have to find somebody who is interested in solar, has a roof somewhat conducive to solar, that isn’t too shaded and isn’t too old, and you have to make sure they are income-qualified,” Delurey said.

The state’s 2021 energy law increased funding for the program, and the Illinois Power Agency — which procures power for the state’s utilities — is now drafting a new long-range plan that will make millions of dollars available to community groups to help with outreach and education in environmental justice communities.

Other changes include a pilot program to offer financial assistance for roofing repairs and other issues that would prevent solar installations. The nonprofit that administers the program, Elevate, will be tasked with verifying incomes and handling other tasks that previously were the responsibility of solar developers. And a “batch” requirement that developers have multiple projects will also be dropped. 

“I’m really excited about the new ways we’re going to be trying to expand residential distributed generation” in low-income communities, said Jennifer Schmidt, Illinois Solar for All program manager for the Illinois Power Agency. “We’re trying lots of new ideas.”

Untapped potential 

Illinois Solar for All participation has been increasing but remains well below expectations. Last year, the program helped with installations at 53 single-family homes or smaller residential buildings and nine larger buildings. This year so far, 157 houses and smaller buildings moved forward with Illinois Solar for All installations. Two larger buildings have also participated, for a total of about 1.3 MW worth of solar. 

The new plan increases the program’s total budget to $66.5 million, and increases the annual allocation for residential distributed solar from $8.1 million to $23.2 million — enough to pay for about 5.5 MW of solar per year. So far this year only about $3 million is being spent. The remaining $19 million plus leftover funds from past years will be rolled over to residential projects in 2023, Schmidt said. 

That means plenty of funding for residential projects is available. (Illinois Solar for All funds for projects at nonprofit organizations, public facilities and low-income community solar have all been spent, with new funds becoming available each year.) 

“Whether we’ll match demand with funding is to be determined, but I do think these new tools will unlock new levels of participation in the Solar for All program,” Delurey said. “There’s the snowball effect in solar — when solar comes to a neighborhood people take notice, but the majority seeing solar live in wealthier communities. As this starts to gain momentum, as new tools approved in the plan start to take shape, we hope to see that snowball effect in low-income communities as well.” 

The new plan also includes a focus on energy sovereignty, aiming to ensure that a quarter of the solar built will eventually be owned by those receiving the power, whether individual homeowners or nonprofit organizations, possibly through a cooperative structure. Illinois Solar for All installations are typically owned by a developer that sells the power to the property owner or resident, to eliminate the upfront costs and also because most low-income customers don’t owe enough taxes to be able to benefit from federal tax incentives for solar. 

Better incentives 

The renewable energy credits available under Illinois Solar for All are priced higher than the state’s general solar incentive program, making it theoretically attractive for solar developers. And participants are guaranteed to save money on their energy bills. 

Nonetheless, outreach has been a barrier, but the new funding from the 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act “allows us to expand our interpretation of grassroots education efforts in this plan to include activities beyond just community education,” Schmidt said. “We’re looking at how can we improve outreach as well as promote and simplify participation — what are some novel ways to get Illinois Solar for All out into the community, who can we work with that we aren’t currently working with?”

On July 14, the Illinois Commerce Commission issued an order based on input from the Illinois Power Agency, the utility ComEd, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and other stakeholders. Based on that order, the Illinois Power Agency is updating its draft final long-term plan for Illinois Solar for All, as well as the state’s larger renewables program.

ComEd disagreed with the amount of funding — up to 5% of the total Illinois Solar for All budget — offered to community organizations for grassroots outreach and education, the commerce commission’s order noted. The utility argued that those funds could be better spent in other ways. 

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization countered that outreach and education are crucial, and noted that under the state’s previous iteration of Illinois Solar for All, less than a third of the $1.53 million allocated per year was actually devoted to community groups for grassroots outreach efforts. 

Delurey said that the lack of participating developers had previously hampered community outreach, a situation he hopes will change.

“Part of the frustration was [outreach organizations] have wanted to host these community listening sessions, but there are not enough companies actively providing bids or projects, so they’ll convene a group but have nothing to offer them,” he said. 

While doing sales and business development for GRNE Solar, Eric Gronwick decided several years ago that becoming an approved Illinois Solar for All vendor would be a smart move. It took about a year and a half to get approved and overcome bureaucratic hurdles, he said. 

“It’s not the simplest program. It took us some time to get comfortable and figure out our niche,” he said. Since then, GRNE has done projects in all four Illinois Solar for All categories — nonprofit and public facilities, low-income community solar and small and large residential buildings. He hopes the program becomes more widely used and is hopeful the expanded community outreach budget will pay off. 

“My favorite part is the grassroots education. I would like to give a shout out to all the grassroots educators who let the public know about it,” he said, noting that he sees firsthand what a high percent of household income that low-income families spend on energy. “When I see that, low-income individuals and families need it more than anyone. And they also don’t always get the latest, coolest thing. With Illinois Solar for All, they’re on the cutting edge, they’re early adopters.”

Fewer obstacles 

Elevate, the nonprofit organization tasked with overseeing Illinois Solar for All, will take on administrative tasks to make it easier for developers. Delurey said giving Elevate more responsibility should help win customers’ trust. When he previously worked for a solar developer trying to recruit customers in the program, many thought it sounded “too good to be true.” 

“When I’m there representing a private company, offering essentially free solar with no payments, it raises a certain amount of healthy skepticism,” he said, especially since alternative retail energy suppliers in Illinois have a history of going door-to-door with deceptive, predatory renewable energy offers. “Having Elevate do that outreach, where they are working for the state, that helps.” 

The new plan will make it easier for someone to prove that they meet the income requirements. And it eliminates a previously mandatory “three-day cooling off period” between initiating a solar purchase process and signing a contract, but it lengthens the time — to two weeks — in which customers can back out of a deal, in case they didn’t understand the situation or were subjected to high-pressure tactics. The program also calls for making aggregate data about income and solar demand available for solar developers to help them better advertise or do outreach.

Illinois Solar for All has a job training component meant to funnel trainees from environmental justice or low-income backgrounds into jobs developing installations in those same communities. In the past, graduates of the job training programs often did not get work, due in part to the low popularity of Illinois Solar for All, especially in areas like Chicago where most job-seekers were located. 

The new long-term plan requires at least one of the program’s trainees to be hired for each qualifying installation, and increases resources for connecting training programs with developers. 

The Illinois Power Agency “is taking responsibility for the success of this program,” with the new plan, Delurey concluded. “Illinois Solar for All is truly open for business.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network 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. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.