Renewable energy can be part of solution for Illinois
The Illinois General Assembly is working to provide relief to families, small businesses and communities that are reeling from the impacts of COVID-19. That relief should include an overdue fix to the state's renewable energy program that can save thousands of jobs while helping lower electric bills for homeowners and businesses across the state.
According to new analysis from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the Illinois solar industry will employ 3,500 fewer workers by June 2020. That's more than half of all solar jobs in the state. This grim reality isn't unique to the solar industry, but Illinois legislators have a unique opportunity save solar jobs. That's because solar businesses are suffering from the compounded impacts of both the pandemic and state policy issues that have been hampering Illinois' solar industry for more than a year.
Solar panels are much more common in your neighborhood today than they were just a few years ago. That's largely because Illinois passed legislation in 2016 that made it possible for homeowners, schools and businesses to lower their electric bills by installing solar. As a result, solar took off.
More than 7,000 new solar installations were approved in Illinois last year, and each of those projects means lower electric bills for customers. For example, the solar installation at West Aurora School District will save $1.3 million, Troy School District in Plainfield will save $3.8 million and Huntley School district will lower energy costs by $4 million by generating their own solar electricity.
Illinois small businesses like Certasun in Buffalo Grove, GRNE in Palatine, Headline Solar in Schaumburg, ReThink Electric in Wood Dale, SunBadger Solar in Mt. Prospect and WCP Solar in Naperville, along with hundreds of other businesses, have hired and trained new staff. Illinois added around 3,000 solar energy jobs in the past 3 years and those employees started building new installations that will provide enough power for at least 250,000 homes.
The program worked, but just as it was gaining steam, it ran out of funding. On the day the program opened in 2019, 800 shovel-ready community solar projects were shelved due to lack of funding. Those projects could lower electricity bills for roughly 160,000 families who choose to subscribe to a community project rather than install panels on their property. Then in February of this year, incentives for large rooftop solar ran out. This meant that school districts and businesses could no longer lock in the same long-term solar savings. Installers across the state saw millions in planned projects evaporate overnight, while many more languish on a waitlist. Many small solar businesses are keeping their teams working today by focusing on residential solar, but those incentives are expected to run out soon as well.
Solar businesses are also navigating new health and safety concerns; trying to manage sales and permitting without face to face contact, incorporating new sanitizing and social distancing protocols on job sites and seeing orders slow down as customers' financial worries pile up. It isn't easy, but solar businesses can find a way to make it through this crisis as long as they know the market for solar in Illinois will still exist in the months to come.
The industry is united in support of the Path to 100 Act. This important legislation has been gaining support for more than a year and would provide a targeted fix to keep Illinois' renewable energy program working and create new jobs, property tax revenues and consumer savings that Illinois needs.
We understand that lawmakers are facing massive challenges and many lives are at risk. However, when the time is right for lawmakers to turn their attention to the economy, a few changes to our already successful renewable energy program can go a long way in supporting our recovery efforts. Inaction could cost thousands more jobs at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing.
The Illinois renewable energy industry is ready to roll up its sleeves, put on a mask and help the state emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before. We're hopeful that state legislators will work with us to make that happen.
• Nakhia Morrissette is the Central Region Director & Counsel at the Solar Energy Industries Association.