Renewable energy in Illinois

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

As oil and gas prices crashed, renewable energy projects were expected to be shelved as they were in the 1980s. Instead in 2015 renewable capacity increased 30 percent globally as their costs continue to fall.

With the extension of the federal tax credits at 30 percent until 2020, renewable energy and energy efficiency investments are expected to increase within both the nation and Illinois. With net metering still in place in Illinois owners of renewable energy systems benefit from selling their excess production back to the utilities offsetting the need to build and operate facilities to meet costly peak power demands.

While the state rebate program still exists, funds available to support new installations are limited and erratic.

The future of renewable energy is greatly influenced by governmental policies. The renewable energy revolution has been driven by a combination of  the economic benefits of lower costs and improving technology and supportive government policies. The EPA Clean Power Plan was expected to reduce carbon emissions and benefit the renewable energy industry. The Supreme Court ruling placing the program on hold pending legal challenges is delaying its implementation.

The budget impasse in Illinois dominates legislative concerns and little news has come out regarding energy policy. If existing policies remain in place modest gains in renewable energy installations and efficiency programs are expected along with larger increases in fossil fuel consumption.

The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition advocates raising existing energy efficiency standards to 20 percent by 2025 and renewable energy standards to 35 percent by 2030. The Union of Concerned Scientists released its Clean Path scenario for Illinois which gives priority to renewable energy and efficiency. Their scenario envisions substantial economic benefits to the state and electrical consumers.

Some of the economic benefits would come through trading carbon credits to other states from cost effective renewable resources and energy efficiency installations. The model assumes existing nuclear facilities would continue to operate through 2030 buoyed by expected increased natural gas prices which would restore the economic competitiveness of nuclear power.

The big uncertainty facing such plans rests with the concerns of the utilities and the responses of legislators and the governor to their concerns. Judging by events on the national level utilities have been active in protecting existing markets and putting up barriers to renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts.

An article by Tim Dickerson in Rolling Stone calls attention to the nationwide effort by fossil fuel interests and utilities to block solar initiatives through actions on the state level. He cites a concern raised by the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute that rooftop solar could damage the utility industry revenues and future growth. While Dickerson focuses on Florida’s inability to capture its vast solar potential by the successful action of utility lobbying state legislators, similar actions are occurring in western states such as Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming.

Existing policies in Illinois are still favorable for renewable energy installations but need to be upgraded to address concerns regarding climate change, air and water pollution, human health and sustainability.  To protect what exists and improve on existing policies will require citizen action. Individuals and communities investing in renewable energy and efficiency now will protect environmental quality now and in the future.

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