Bloomington-Normal Poised to Soak Up the Rays With Solar Energy Boom

 A solar homeowner celebrates with two StraightUp Solar employees on the day his system was installed. (Image credit: StraightUp Solar)

A solar homeowner celebrates with two StraightUp Solar employees on the day his system was installed. (Image credit: StraightUp Solar)

Despite lagging job statistics and prohibitive trade barriers, Illinois is positioned for a solar boom over the next five years.

According to the Solar Jobs Census, Illinois ranked 20th in 2017 with 3,571 solar jobs, down 150 jobs from 2016. Concurrently, the Trump administration implemented a 30% tariff on imported solar to boost domestic solar panel production. 

Despite these hurdles, Illinois is projected to add approximately 2,000 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity by 2023. This would make Illinois the 10th-largest growth projection among the states, according to the recent GTM Research and Solar Energy Industries Association report. 

The surge in solar capacity can be attributed to The Federal Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), a landmark clean energy legislation passed in 2016. FEJA sets ambitious goals to stimulate job creation in the clean energy sector and drive investment for energy efficiency in Illinois. 

StraightUp Solar is an Engineering, Procurement, and Construction solar company headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, with an office at 505 N. Main Street in Bloomington. Most of the solar capacity in McLean County has historically been residential, but FEJA created avenues for more commercial and industrial development. 

“…because the new Future Energy Jobs Act created this really strong incentive program and awareness around solar, we are finding the commercial market is beginning to step up,” said Shannon Fulton, Director of Commercial Sales for StraightUp Solar. “There are incentive mechanisms available now, specifically solar PPAs [Power Purchase Agreements] and leases, that are more commonly considered by businesses where, prior to FEJA, they were not.” 

The largest growth area for StraightUp Solar as a result of FEJA is community solar, a system in which the solar panels act as a power plant that shares its energy among multiple households. For community solar to be effective, it requires virtual net metering (a bill crediting system in which the panels are installed externally and the energy is shared among subscribers). FEJA allows for virtual net metering, making community solar an option.

“Bloomington-Normal provides a community that values the benefits solar can bring to the community by promoting programs like Solarize Bloomington-Normal,” said Oliver Ellen, Illinois State University graduate student and StraightUp Solar business development coordinator. “The area is definitely heading in the right direction, but there is always more we can do to accelerate the adoption of solar in town.” 

Fulton credits McLean County’s uptick in solar capacity to the solarized program enacted in 2016. StraightUp Solar worked with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and the Ecology Action Center to offer bulk-purchasing of solar panels. The bulk purchasing secured pricing that saved residents 15-20% of the cost to purchase solar panels on their own. The program increased solar capacity in McLean County by 432 kW.  A second solar bulk purchasing program is currently in the works. 

“That program includes a series of what we call Solar Power Hours,” Fulton said. “It’s an hour of solar education and public meetings that are held every other week for a period of six months. Through that brief six months of education, we had over 400 kW installed, and those programs do create solar literacy throughout the community. Whether you go solar or not, just that awareness of solar begins to create interest.”

With the increase in solar installed capacity goals from FEJA, the State of Illinois and McLean County will see a subsequent increase in clean energy jobs. Until FEJA passed, StraightUp Solar had primarily been geared toward sales. With FEJA in place, StraightUp Solar plans to create installation capacity jobs, such as support and installers, over the next twelve months, Fulton said. 

StraightUp Solar could also add another eight to twelve jobs as a result of The Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan. The Illinois Power Agency developed the plan as an avenue to achieve FEJA’s goal for electric utilities to generate 25% of their power from renewable resources by 2025.

Recently, an administrative law judge with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) ruled in favor of ComEd’s recommendation to exclude energy cooperatives and municipal utilities from the SREC program–a portion of The Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan.

If not overturned, the approved recommendation could present an additional hurdle for solar growth in Illinois. 

“This is devastating,” Fulton said. “From Central Illinois to Southern Illinois is where the vast majority of energy cooperatives and municipal utilities exist. And in Southern Illinois the energy cooperatives and municipal utilities are highly concentrated.”  

Approximately 25% of electrical customers in Central and Southern Illinois purchase energy from energy cooperatives or municipal utilities. ComEd justified its recommendation by claiming that energy cooperatives and municipal utilities do not pay into the fund for SRECs and, therefore, should not receive any of the credits.  

“The previous RECs (Renewable Energy Credits) before the Future Energy Jobs Act included energy cooperatives and municipal utilities,” Fulton said. “It wasn’t until late in the game with the ICC that ComEd slid in this exclusion.”

A campaign in support of overturning the recommendation has resulted in more than 600 comments filed with the ICC. On April 3, the ICC will vote on whether to overturn the recommendation.

“We would like to keep people in their home state if that’s what they chose,” Fulton said, regarding the April 3 ruling and job growth. “We are at a very dynamic time where these jobs are available where they haven’t been for so long. We are at such a unique location to have students coming out of these universities beginning to be prepared for a career in renewable energy. It's a really exciting time."