What’s the Potential for Solar Power in Your Backyard?

In 2015, Illinois added 11 MW of solar energy production, which was a 75% increase over the previous year. While this growth is encouraging, the state remains middle-of-the-pack for overall capacity, ranking 27th in the nation. So what can be done to encourage more solar panel installation?

Thanks to the Cook County Community Solar Portal, a new, interactive map developed by the Cook County Department of Environmental Control and Elevate Energy, the potential for solar power capacity in the Chicago region can now easily be ascertained. The parcel-level map allows users to do more than search the county by address; filters can fine-tune the information by property type, solar power potential, roof type and municipality or Chicago neighborhood.

solar-portalEvery viable site provides an estimate of the annual electricity generation that a solar array could provide if installed there. As alternative metrics, the site breaks it down to the number of homes an installation could power per year and the carbon offset in tons of CO2 emissions.

“I think this project demonstrates the opportunity [for] all the various stakeholders—utilities, local government, developers, community planners and community members themselves—to begin to visualize what their role in a future solar economy might look like,” said Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy.

After gathering the data, it became clear that only a quarter of Cook County households can viably install solar panels on their property. Myriad reasons prevent the majority from doing so. Some rooftops are in the shade of other structures or face to the north. Many residents live in a multi-housing unit where they don’t own the roof or lack the financial means to fund a solar installation.

In recognition of this, the Cook County Community Solar Portal is more than a map. It also provides business models, case studies, educational resources and other information on a relatively new concept called community solar. As most households can’t install solar panels atop their home due to logistical or financial concerns, community solar allows anyone to access clean electricity by buying some of the power of a large installation.

“The solar developers will tell you that the larger the better. But we’re looking at sites as small as 25 kW,” said Deborah Stone, Director of the Cook County Department of Environmental Control. “That size diversity is what’s going to help community solar succeed in Cook County.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has committed to reducing the County’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. As solar energy would be a critical way of reaching this goal, finding ways to engage all county residents in taking part is paramount.

The Cook County Community Solar Portal was made possible with support from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust. Elevate Energy developed the online resource in partnership with the Cook County Department of Environmental Control, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. The community solar site is part of a larger effort to introduce and accelerate community solar installations in the region, a project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

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