Community solar in Illinois: How it works and how you can sign up
Community solar has grown exponentially in the last handful of years, and with more and more consumers shedding their skepticism and expressing interest, developers are picking up the pace — in some cases even struggling to meet demand.
Here's what you need to know about the burgeoning subscriber-based solar service.
What it is
Community solar refers to local solar arrays that community members can subscribe to in exchange for credit on their electricity bills. For many consumers, it's a way to participate in solar power without having to purchase and maintain their own panels.
“Community solar is really best for people who are in a living situation that can't support solar on their house,” said Nicola Brown, a program associate with the Illinois Solar Education Association.
That includes renters, people in multifamily homes, people whose homes are too shaded to support solar, and people who can't afford the upfront costs of solar.
For those who do have solar on their home, if their array doesn't cover their entire electricity usage, they can supplement it by also subscribing to community solar.
“A combination of rooftop solar and distributed solar and utility scale solar can really rise to meet the demands of the carbon reduction goals that most states have,” said Keith Hevenor, the communication manager for solar energy company Nexamp. “Illinois is pretty aggressive ... in getting to those goals, and we feel like community solar provides an opportunity for folks to get involved in that transition — with some benefits because they're gonna save some money on their utility expenses — if they weren't otherwise able to participate in solar.”
There are three main steps to participating in community solar: Learn how much energy you use, find a project you can subscribe to, and sign up.
Knowing how much energy your household uses each year is key, because you don't want to oversubscribe when deciding how many solar panels are needed, Brown said. You can find this information on your ComEd bill or via the utility's website.
Where to look
When finding a solar project, the main rule is the development has to be in the same territory as your utility. For instance, you can subscribe even if the solar project is in Rockford, because ComEd's territory includes that area.
While there are many ways to find a project, one resource is Illinois consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board, which provides a monthly comparison of current community solar deals at tinyurl.com/CUBCommunitySolarOffers.
Both organizations encourage consumers to shop around to look for the best deal. Typically, a household that covers their entire usage through community solar will save 10-20% on its electric bill.
Mark Pruitt, principal at energy consulting firm The Power Bureau, added while shopping, consumers should be aware of any signup or cancellation fees, credit checks and the length of a potential subscription contract.
Consumers also should bear in mind savings will come in the form of two bills: one from their utility and one from their solar provider. A consumer will see money taken off their electric bill, titled “solar credits.” They then pay their solar provider for the credits — but at a discounted rate, hence the savings.
“There's two bills, which just to be fully transparent, that's a process that nobody really likes, but that's the way it was set up in Illinois,” said Edith Makra, director of environmental initiatives for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, a membership organization of 275 cities, towns and villages in the Chicago region. “The two-tier process is something that, from a policy standpoint, needs to get worked out to make that less of a barrier.”
It's this potential barrier that, along with the hassle of shopping around, may contribute to consumer skepticism.
Pruitt often hears consumers say, “I don't have to pay anything, but I get a guaranteed discount on my utility bill. What's the catch?”
“What we say is, no, there is no catch. This is how the law is set up,” he said. “The law requires the utility to allocate shares of the output from the community solar farm to the subscribers, and then to provide a credit based on the utility rate for those credits. That's the basic premise: It's not too good to be true because this is what state law and utility tariffs say must happen.”
To help municipalities cut through the noise and offer reliable community solar to their residents, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus launched the Community Solar Clearinghouse Solution Program in 2019, with Pruitt as its consultant.
The initiative connects municipalities with solar developers through a competitive bidding process, and then allows the cities and towns to present subscription terms to their residents and small businesses — essentially eliminating the middleman and providing a “fair and transparent” community solar option to consumers.
Participating communities include Deerfield, Glencoe, Highland Park, Lake Forest, Northbrook, Elgin, Glenview, Lombard, Mount Prospect, Schaumburg and Wilmette. For more information, residents can check their municipality websites.
The supply problem
As more residents and commercial customers learn about community solar, the market has grown so that there is more demand than supply, Pruitt said.
“The demand has grown faster than the supply has grown because you're talking about building a solar farm that basically puts solar panels on anywhere from 10 to 20 acres of land. That's a lot,” he said. “There's always going to be a challenge with getting these new assets built anywhere.”
Pruitt added, on top of the normal lag due to the development process, there also was a lag in state funding that occurred between the passages of Illinois' two climate legislative packages: the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2017 and the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021.
The good news for those interested in community solar is the number of developments has grown fourfold over the last three years — and more projects are coming down the pipeline.
In December 2020, ComEd had about 20 community solar developments in its territory. As of July 2023, there were about 80.
“We do expect to have several more come online by the end of the year,” said Scott Vogt, ComEd's vice president of strategy and energy policy. “We've seen substantial growth over the last four years or so. That was all driven by FEJA for the most part, and that was really the enabling legislation for community solar.”
Example in the field
As more projects take shape throughout Illinois, a recent Nexamp project in Kane County shows one way developers can approach the issue of land use. Among the 7,000 panels that make up French Road Solar in Burlington, wildflowers thrive.
The pollinator-friendly plants were seeded beneath and around the panels, providing habitat for bees and butterflies while stabilizing the soil and reducing runoff.
“It's land that may not be growing what it was growing before, but it's growing two new important things,” said Hevenor, of Nexamp. “It's growing a crop of clean energy, and it's growing a crop of pollinator vegetation that's contributing to the surrounding communities. And for farmers nearby, the collocation of pollinator resources is really important.”
Hevenor added the developer also is looking to launch a solar grazing program in Illinois, in which Nexamp will employ local farmers to graze sheep on its sites rather than hire a landscape company to mow.
“It's this kind of dual-purpose, responsible land use that we in the industry are figuring out to make these projects that much more impactful and effective,” he said.
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.