Power to the People: Expanding Solar Capacity Through Co-Ops

By Matt Baker

In 2015, Illinois added 11 MW of solar power 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?

Part of the answer may be shared renewables. These projects allow multiple energy customers to pool their resources into a small—though still utility-size—renewable energy source. Each household or business then receives a share of the output, offsetting the power they pull down from the grid.


Community Solar

When speaking specifically of solar power generation, these projects are often referred to as “community solar.” A community solar farm is a collection of solar panels installed most often on public or jointly-owned property. They are usually ground-mounted, though they can be affixed on a roofscape under certain conditions.

There are various models for a community solar co-op. Some utilities offer on-bill crediting, wherein residents and businesses buy one or more shares of a renewable farm and receive a credit on their energy bill. Under another model, some utilities allow customers to purchase a set amount of electricity at a fixed rate from a shared facility for a long, multi-year term. Utilities aren’t a prerequisite partner, however; community members can form a special purpose entity to develop a community solar project.

Despite the dropping cost of solar, it remains a cost-prohibitive project for many small businesses and homeowners. But there are other factors that would impel individuals from taking part in a community solar project, aside from cost. Renters and condominium owners don’t have domain over their roof and therefore can’t install solar panels. Even for property owners, the roof may be in the shade or oriented in a way that is not optimal for solar power harvesting. Even if a commercial building avoids those obstacles, it might be exempt because of mechanical equipment occupying too much of the roof real estate.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are more than 90 community solar projects up and running across 25 states. There is only one operation in Illinois, in the northwestern community of Elizabeth. The South View Solar Farm is operated by Jo-Carroll Energy, a member of the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives alliance.

Constructed in 2014, South View Solar Farm occupies three-quarters of an acre in Jo Daviess County. The array consists of 456 solar panels and has a capacity of over 125 kW. Subscribers purchased a minimum of one panel for $890, and each panel has a capacity of 275 watts. Subscribers receive around $50 per year per panel in utility credits, with an estimated return on investment of about 18 years.

Mapping Cook County

Thanks to a new, interactive map developed by the Cook County Department of Environmental Control and non-profit organization Elevate Energy, the potential for community solar 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.

Every 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 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. 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 front 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 community solar. “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 significant.

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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