Thanks to a new law, green businesses in Illinois have new life

  • John Stewart of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale checks over the 12 solar panels that his company installed on the roof of a Grayslake home.

      John Stewart of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale checks over the 12 solar panels that his company installed on the roof of a Grayslake home. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • John Stewart of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale checks over the 12 solar panels that his company installed on the roof of a Grayslake home.

      John Stewart of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale checks over the 12 solar panels that his company installed on the roof of a Grayslake home. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • John Stewart of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale checks over the panels his company installed on the roof of the Grayslake home.

    John Stewart of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale checks over the panels his company installed on the roof of the Grayslake home.

  • Rethink Electric foreman Tony Galarza finishes installing a power inverter for the solar panels the Wood Dale company installed.

    Rethink Electric foreman Tony Galarza finishes installing a power inverter for the solar panels the Wood Dale company installed.

  • Crews from Rethink Electric in Wood Dale installed 12 solar panels on the roof of a Grayslake home.

      Crews from Rethink Electric in Wood Dale installed 12 solar panels on the roof of a Grayslake home. photos by Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/15/2021 4:18 PM

Dawn Heid remembers Sept. 15 -- the day Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act ­-- very well, and with good reason.

"It was amazing," said Heid, CEO of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale. "We've been working on this for a couple of years now, to be honest with you. ... It was a beautiful day right there on the lakefront."

 

Of course it's fitting that the sun was shining for this signing ceremony. The law aims to make it possible for companies that install solar panels to not just survive in Illinois but to thrive in Illinois.

Supporters say this energy bill isn't just pro-business but is pro-environment as well. The bill seeks to fight the effects of climate change by having 40% of the state's energy come from solar or wind power by 2030, 50% by 2040. Just about 9% of Illinois' energy comes from renewables now, so there's a long way for Illinois businesses to go in a short amount of time.

So far, the new law is having the desired effect, sending sales chart arrows skyward. Customers are responding to the financial incentives in the new legislation.

"My phone's been ringing off the hook," Heid said. " ... It's a good problem to have, right? Especially compared to the last year that we were facing. Things have definitely picked up, a lot of interest both from customers, employees, investors, all across the board."

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Filling the void

The last Illinois energy law ran out of money for solar incentives in December. Combined with the effects of shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some suburban solar panel installation companies were on the verge of going out of business.

"It is a game-changer for our industry," Everton Walters of WCP Solar in Naperville said.

"I was incredibly relieved and deeply grateful that the General Assembly and the governor ultimately passed the bill. I just wish they had done it a year ago," added Josh Lutton, president of Buffalo Grove-based Certasun.

Walters started WCP Solar in 2007, but his business' future looked cloudy for most of 2021. Now he's walking on Cloud 9.

"But these incentives, it has put a renewed vigor in my step, so to speak. I'm anxious to see what the future holds," he said.

Both Walters and Lutton said they had to lay off or furlough much of their company's workforce. These days they're busy trying to rehire those employees.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Walters said that of his 192 employees in 2020, he was down to about half that number when the governor signed the bill. He hopes to get many of them back by the end of the year to work on new projects.

Heid's company, Rethink Electric, went from 70 employees in December down to 10. Now she's thinking much bigger than 70 employees, maybe as many as 250, when she talks with investors.

Business is good again. But not every employee will return to the solar panel installation industry, a source of frustration for Lutton. After all, it takes a good deal of time and money to hire and train new workers.

"It certainly would have been more efficient to not have to fire and rehire different people and retrain them," said Lutton, who started his business in 2018 as a response to the previous law's incentives to install solar panels.

"We had many people who told us in the winter, spring and summer, call me when the incentives are back. I'm not interested in moving forward without these incentives," Lutton added.

Moving forward with the incentives could boost not only these companies but the state economy as a whole, experts say.

A study last year by David Loomis at Illinois State University predicted the new law would add about 53,000 construction jobs by 2033 and would result in $8.7 billion in increased economic output.

The new law also gives employers peace of mind that money will be there for them for several years, and that peace of mind can filter down to their employees as well.

"They call it the solar coaster for a reason, right, because the incentives are short-lived sometimes," said Heid, who operates an old-fashioned apprenticeship program so her employees are doing more than just accepting a job. "You might have two or three years or something. But if you have an 8- to 10-year runway, that gives you as an employee a chance to build a career."

Easier to be green

The goal of the law isn't just to promote business, of course. The main purpose is to fight climate change. It's a goal these businesses and their customers share with the state.

"We've seen the effects of climate change, right here in Illinois, repeatedly in the last 2½ years alone," Pritzker said at the bill-signing ceremony at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. "A polar vortex, devastating floods, microbursts that destroy buildings, record lake levels, extreme heat and emergency declarations in more than a third of Illinois counties."

In addition, according to Capitol News Illinois, the bill forces fossil fuel plants offline between 2030 and 2045, with some contingencies. It subsidizes three nuclear plants and increases subsidies for renewable energy such as solar and wind by more than $350 million annually. There also are incentives to purchase electric cars.

"There are a lot of customers who, yeah, they want to make a difference," Heid said. "They want to reduce pollution, they want to make a better future for their kids and grandkids. Everybody is very well aware now of climate change and the issues we're already facing. People want to help and they want to do their part."

But many customers, especially commercial customers, also see the financial benefits.

"I have not had any customers who bought a system just because it was the right thing to do. My customers are doing this because it made financial sense," Walters said.

Customers can save up to 80% of their electric bill by going solar, depending on their footprint and the system size that they can accommodate on their building, he said.

"On my home for instance I'm saving close to 80% on my electric bill. So it is significant," Walters said.

Car chase

The law also attempts to get consumers to race to buy electric vehicles, with a $4,000 incentive for each vehicle, beginning next July 1, in addition to federal incentives.

Suburban car dealerships are taking notice.

"People are looking to switch to electric for all the benefits it has," said Brandon Killian of Packey Webb Ford in Downers Grove. "It's cleaner for the environment. You're getting more performance out of these vehicles. And it's just what the trend is right now.

"And I think what you're going to see is that as you see more and more incentives coming out, it's going certainly to give people more reason to purchase electric vehicles over traditional gas-powered vehicles."

Added Car and Driver magazine: "Electric cars are the future, and each year we've seen automakers add more EVs to their lineup. Everyone is working on electric vehicles, from well-established existing manufacturers to new names such as Byton, Lordstown and Rivian (produced in downstate Bloomington)."

Ford, for instance, in September announced plans to spend $11.4 billion along with a South Korean energy firm to build electric vehicles on a large scale.

Killian said he expects that soon, 15% to 20% of the vehicles sold at Packey Webb will be electric. Now that number is around 5%.

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