Looks like solar, in Illinois

By Mark Burger

Illinois Solar Energy Association

The Sept. 15 groundbreaking ceremony of the Wanxiang America Corporation’s solar photovoltaic manufacturing plant in Rockford is one of a number of promising developments for the future of solar power in Illinois.

The groundbreaking, off Blackhawk Drive just east of the Chicago-Rockford International Airport, will augur a panel, or module, manufacturing facility that will consist of 40,000 square feet of area and employ 60 people, with the second phase eventually reaching 160,000 square feet and more than 200 workers.

After a strong start in the 2000s, manufacturing and installing solar electric and solar heating panels and systems in Illinois have suffered in the last five years. A prime reason was the consistent lack of policy and incentive support at the state level. As the solar market grew outside the familiarity of California, states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Oregon offered their own advantages, encouraging the installation of systems and the jobs and businesses that came along with it. As a result, Illinois fell out of the top six solar states in 2001 down to the near bottom by the end of the decade.

Despite recent federal improvements, the incentive and policy advantages of nearly two dozen states kept Illinois’ installation market at less than 100 solar electric and solar heating systems each per year, well under 1 percent of the U.S. market share for a state that uses 4 percent of the country’s energy. Local manufacturing atrophied, and installation and service businesses failed to grow in an uncertain environment.

But policy and incentive changes since 2008 offer hope that Illinois may yet claim a major share of the now $3 billion-a-year U.S. solar electric and thermal industry and its tens of thousands of jobs.

Megawatt-scale solar energy systems are in various stages of proposal and development in Illinois. (A megawatt takes up about a football field and can power 200 or more average Illinois homes.)

Wanxiang also announced with the New Generation Power of Chicago to build up to 40 megawatts (MW) of solar farms by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. The project, to begin in stages, can be a prime outlet for Wanxiang’s panel production and leverage job creation and business growth at the installation as well as manufacturing stage. The announcement follows plans by the Exelon Corporation, parent of ComEd, to install a 10 MW system in southeastern Chicago by 2010. There is also a 3/4 of a MW installation in the works on Chicago’s West Side.

A number of legislative acts have improved the policy standing in Illinois. In 2008, standard measures for metering and interconnecting solar and small-scale wind power systems were enacted for the three major investor-owned utilities-—ComEd, the Ameren group and Mid America. While not as uniform as a complete statewide standard to include rural co-ops and municipal utilities, the changes  encompass more than 90 percent of Illinois’ ratepayers.

Legislation enacted in 2009 included a set-aside for solar in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires a certain percentage of renewable electricity from power generation. The set-aside doesn’t take effect until 2015, but helps set the stage. Improvements in the legislation to include earlier ramp-up amounts and include medium-temperature solar thermal are in the works. Another enactment this year was a law allowing school and community college districts to set up their own financing mechanisms for solar and wind energy systems.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) announced a series of funding initiatives for renewable energy. Two of them will support large-scale (5 MW) renewable energy power plants and smaller community-scale systems costing more than $100,000. There is also a solicitation for Green Industry Business Development, which has attracted attention for a number of projects, including a proposed solar tracking system manufacturing plant in central Danville. These solicitations may be found at DCEO’s Web site at www.illinoisenergy.org and are due Oct. 26. There are also reports that the small-scale grants and rebates program may be revived in the very near future to spur installation of residential and other solar electric, solar heating and wind power systems.

The follow-through of these and related programs and initiatives may yet put Illinois back on track to take its place as a leading solar power, as well as wind power state.

From the September 23-29, 2009 issue

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