The Windy City Goes Solar

By Matt Baker

In April, energy giant Exelon Corp. announced plans to erect a solar collection plant on Chicago’s south side. The $60 million plus project would only go forward, Exelon said, with stimulus support from the federal government.

Three months later, the purse opened. Exelon’s grant was approved and a $50 million slice of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is now dedicated for the program.

Exelon will lease 39 acres of city-owned property in the West Pullman neighborhood to house the 32,800 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. Exelon posits that the clean-up, construction and installation of the solar farm will generate 200 jobs, though maintenance of the site will likely only require one full-time employee.
Exelon will turn to San Jose, CA-based SunPower Corporation for procurement of the solar panels. SunPower will also handle design and installation of the system. The joint venture will operate as Exelon Solar Chicago LLC, with all wattage sold to Exelon Corp, the parent of Commonwealth Edison, at a static price.

Exelon estimates that the solar plant’s output should generate the annual energy needs of between 1,200 and 1,500 households. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s system for calculating emissions savings, the installation will displace approximately 31.2 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually, the equivalent of taking more than 2,500 cars off the road or planting more than 3,200 acres of forest. Exelon will also offer Solar Renewable Energy Certificates for commercial clients seeking to offset their own carbon footprints.

Currently, Exelon has around 33,000 megawatts (MW) of energy production in its portfolio. Of that, around 2,000 MW are derived from renewable sources such as wind, solar and small hydroelectric. The proposed West Pullman project would generate around 10 MW.

Last year, Exelon launched a program to reduce, offset or displace their carbon footprint by 15 million metric tons by 2020. One of their strategies towards this goal is to offer more low-carbon energy options to their customers.

Exelon’s decision to augment its renewable energy sources may seem peculiar, given the relatively low rate of return when compared to traditional sources such as coal and nuclear. “As a provider of electrical service in urban areas, we understand the importance of finding urban locations for renewable energy,” said Exelon Chairman and CEO John W. Rowe. “We are pleased to bring the largest urban solar installation to West Pullman, helping to revitalize an area where industry once thrived.”

Locating an energy source in an urban area is one of solar’s assets; sending electricity to where it is needed most from outside the urban core would reduce the efficiency of electricity coursing through our nation’s aging energy grid. But another advantage to solar over traditional energy sources is that a centralized facility is unnecessary. PV is designed to be site-specific, generating power for whatever use is at hand.

So why is Exelon investing in the solar plant? For one reason, the price is right. Eighty percent of the capital investment will be leveraged by federal stimulus funding. And the site’s owner, the City of Chicago, has agreed to a twenty-five year lease at a fixed price of just under $3,000 per acre. Per year.

Another likely impetus is H.R. 2454. The Waxman-Markey Bill, recently passed by the House and awaiting a Senate vote, mandates significant increases in the efficiency of electricity generation. If the bill passes through the Senate and across the president’s desk in its current form, not only will more renewable sources be a requisite for energy producers like Exelon, the price for carbon-positive fuels like coal will rise, leveling the playing field for alternative fuels. Given this chance to compete, renewable energy sources will eventually become cheaper, and possibly rule the market. Exelon has realized that, to be not only competitive but relevant in the 21st Century, it must move towards more renewable sources.

What remains most curious is the decision to locate the solar plant on an abandoned brownfield on the city’s south side. While returning the former industrial site to productive use is an obvious good, the beauty of PV is its negligible footprint when integrated into a roof. Consider the UPS distribution center in Western Springs—the largest package sorting facility in the world. Along the Chicago lakefront, McCormick Place and the water purification facility adjacent to Navy Pier offer large flat roofs. Gurnee Mills outlet mall in Lake County is another of countless built structures around the area—warehouses, self-storage facilities, airport hangars, etc.—ripe for solar energy production. The roof area of the four facilities listed above runs between 100 and 120 acres. Why not maximize a buildable lot by leasing the roof of an existing building rather than install PV at ground level? Perhaps this will an option as Exelon moves to further expand its renewable energy sources into the future.

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