At the invitation of the Institute For Sustainable Communities, PlanItGreen team members who are involved in energy issues attended a "Turning Energy Data Into Action" workshop at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.

The April 3-4 workshop was part of the Solar In Your Community initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Program. People from more NREL groupthan a dozen agencies across the U.S., including colleagues at the Cook County Department of Environment and Sustainability (formerly Environmental Control), attended.

“Building from and upon the work of PlanItGreen, we learned about resources, strategy, and how other communities have/are addressed/ing renewable energy use – with specific focus on solar energy,” said Kristin Carlson Vogen, President and CEO of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, who was part of the PlanItGreen team. “We had two one-on-one conversations with NREL consultants, which helped us build the vision for Oak Park and River Forest.”

In addition to Vogen, other PlanItGreen team members were SGA executive director Gary Cuneen, Village of Oak Park director of Public Works John Wielebnicki, and PlanItGreen solar energy consultant Mark Burger.

NRELThe presenters at the workshop “were some of the leading researchers at NREL involved in how to gather, assess and use energy data,” Burger said. “While the PlanItGreen group has been quite good at gathering data for its biannual report card, the workshop exposed them to a new dimension of sources to enhance their findings. They also did exercises on how to incorporate the data in planning and presentations to the public.”

Started in 1977, NREL is the nation’s primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

Wielebnicki said the NREL could be a valuable resource for the Village of Oak Park as it evaluates a plan for incorporating renewable energy into the community.

The PlanItGreen team capped off the workshop with a tour of the impressive facilities at Golden and a viewing of a state-of-the-art three-dimensional real-time planning and status operation of the energy generating, using and related functions of NREL.

The status of bringing solar power, community solar and its related economic and environmental justice benefits to Oak Park, River Forest and the rest of Illinois is still in the early stages.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill, including the Solar For All Illinois program, signed into law last Dec. 7, will take effect on June 1, 2017. But details of the program’s design and management are still being discussed among a recently formed working group.

The primary milestones in developing the programs fall to the Illinois Power Agency, which must submit a plan by June 29, and the Illinois Commerce Commission, which must rule on the plan by Sept. 29.  The likely outcome is that there will be no active program before 2018.  Some of the issues to be worked out include:SusLogo

  •      Which entity will act as the overall program administrator? How will community solar project developers work within this framework?
  •      How will customers in community solar be recruited, especially for the low-moderate income Solar For All Illinois Program? How will community groups participate, and what consumer protection measures will be established?
  •      How will training for installers work beyond what will be offered by ComEd? What training will be offered for the non-installation part of the program?
  •       Will the utility side of the program be ready for 2018, specifically the account coordination between community solar and the customer, as well as sufficient resources for engineering studies of grid impact?

This does not mean that program progress isn’t happening. At present, around $200 million is available from the Renewable Energy Resource Fund (RERF) to jumpstart solar programs. However, unlike the Future Energy Jobs Bill legislation, which prevents funding from being used for anything else, the RERF can be used by the General Assembly for plugging holes in the budget. A concerted advocacy effort is trying to prevent that from happening.

Beyond that, there is a great need in 2017 for general education, awareness and outreach to reach the public on the program opportunities. 

Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) will be conducting a wide range of events in the coming months to get the public ready. Topics include how solar energy works in our electrical grid, how electric bills provide information on going solar, how to choose between rooftop and community solar and the impact of going solar on the community, the state and the wider world.  SGA will continue to work with large local electricity users on bigger, utility-scale solar participation, as well as houses of worship and non-profit organizations for potential community scale projects.

By Mark Burger, solar consultant to PlanItGreen

Daphne Dixon has come to know Seven Generations Ahead well over the last nine years.

It was in 2007 that the Connecticut resident, after completing a master gardener’s program, started thinking about starting an organization that would “educate people about what they can do around sustainability,” she says.Daphne Dixon

Dixon began with Google, looking—virtually—“around the country for examples of organizations that seemed to be working.” She found lots of sites around sustainability topics but most seemed pretty shallow, she recalls. Until she found SGA.

“When I found SGA, I was impressed with the depth of programming, not just a lot of greenwashing, trying to get web traffic to sell ads,” she says. “I could tell there was lot of integrity to the work that was being done. There was a long vision.”

She signed up to receive SGA’s newsletter and over the years would visit the website from time to time, seeing notices about PlanItGreen and Green Town forums. “Gosh, one day I’d like to be in a context that I could come” to a forum, she would say to herself.

In the meantime, she became more immersed in green and sustainability issues in southern Connecticut. She started Conscious Decisions, an organization to educate the public on sustainable and eco-friendly living practices. She founded the annual Fairfield County Green Faire, the Fairfield County Green Coast Awards, and co-founded the Green Market Exposition.

Six years ago, the energy commission in the town of Wilton, Conn., wanted to put on a festival called Wilton Go Green. One of the women involved sought guidance from Dixon, who by this time had done hundreds of events.

As the Wilton festivals went on, its leaders’ vision grew, Dixon says. In addition to the festivals, they wanted “to do deeper work in the community. We wanted to be a catalyst.”

Even with everything she was doing, Dixon was still keeping up with SGA’s work, hoping one day to get out to Oak Park, to meet executive director Gary Cuneen and the staff. And attend one of those forums.

After Dixon became executive director of Wilton Go Green earlier this year, her first task was to put together a symposium. Tina Duncan, a Wilton resident and symposium chairperson, suggested Dixon contact SGA, not knowing how much Dixon already had been following the organization.

Duncan herself knew of SGA from her role as president of the Lumpkin Family Foundation, which had been one of SGA’s first funders.

When Wilton Go Green was looking for a keynote speaker for its inaugural symposium, the leaders thought of Cuneen. He accepted their invitation and spoke Nov. 29 symposium, which took place at the Wilton Library.

“It was a dream come true to have Gary come out,” Dixon said. “He was such an inspiration to all of us, just his insights, experience and perspective. It was amazing to have him there.”

Then another amazing thing happened. Dixon got her wish. In early December, after quickly booking a plane ticket at the Wilton Go Green board’s suggestion, she flew to Chicago and got to visit the SGA office—and attend those forums she’d spent the last nine years reading about.

In the span of two days, Dixon attended the Fox Valley Sustainability Network’s transportation forum in Elgin, then the next day the PlanItGreen Institutional Leaders Forum in Oak Park. 

She says she will return to Connecticut with “a big notebook” filled with ideas and inspirations from her visit. “It’s been a dream come true to come and be with you,” she says.

—Cassandra West

On Dec. 1, the Illinois General Assembly passed the "Future Energy Jobs Bill" (SB2814), the most comprehensive energy legislation of its kind in more MarkBurger
than 20 years. A few days later, Gov. Rauner signed the bill.

The bill had been headlined as a subsidy, or "bailout," for the nuclear power plants that Exelon has been threatening to close.  What is not popularly known is that the bulk of the legislation revives and strengthens the renewable energy and energy efficiency markets in Illinois enabling the state to regain its prominence as the fifth largest energy market in the U.S.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill will enable the rate base to fund locally based energy efficiency and solar power programs that can save more money for consumers over the long run. The Bill fixes the Renewable Portfolio Standard that will allow better financing of already cost-effective wind and solar power systems, large and small.

For the first time, a Community Solar Program is formalized in Illinois to enable households that can't site a solar power on the home to participate. Additional funding has been allocated for low-income households for energy efficiency and solar power. These actions can mean more jobs and business growth in high unemployment communities in the Chicagoland area, as well as elsewhere in Illinois.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill will protect electric consumers with rate increase caps and access to energy efficiency and solar energy programs that can reduce their electric usage. All in all, the Future Energy Jobs Bill promises to channel a lot of pent up demand for clean, more locally based power and economic opportunity.

—Mark Burger, PlanItGreen solar energy consultant

CommunitySolarGraphic

Solar power is mainstreaming into the United States’ electric grid, shedding its label as an “alternative source” in just a few years. More than 1 million buildings in the United States, and about 1,000 in Illinois, have a solar power system on their property.

With utility-scale installations, solar power is near 3 percent of U.S. power plant capacity and 1 percent of electricity consumption. These numbers may double in the next year or two.  Costs have dropped 70 percent in the last six years, and promise to drop further.

This market promises to grow considerably, but there are some limits on the horizon. Many households still can’t afford the cost of their own system. Many more people are renters or live in buildings where they cannot effectively have their own system. Still many more single-family homeowners, especially in built-up areas like Chicago, may not be able to effectively install a system because of orientation, shadowing or roof structure issues.

Fortunately, there is a way that these households can have a direct link to solar power, through a concept called community solar.

Community solar is a large installation that serves to supply the electricity of multiple accounts, whether residential or non-residential. The system can be located in the immediate vicinity of the served accounts or a distance away.  There are variations of agreements between the account holder, the owner or operator of the system and the electric utility. An account holder can outright buy one or more solar panels of the installation, claiming tax credits and the panels’ output, or agree to buy the output only over a period of time, usually multiple years. Account holders may go for buying 100 percent of their own electricity consumption or a percentage.

Community solar programs are underway in states like Minnesota and Colorado, and are just beginning in Illinois. There is one small Community Solar project in a rural electric cooperative in northwestern Illinois, and plans for projects in municipal electric utilities.

Investor-owned Utilities, like ComEd, are at very early stages, and are looking at community solar on a voluntary basis, pending on the outcome of upcoming policy or legislative changes.

In the meantime, communities like Oak Park and River Forest are going ahead with their own initiatives to develop community solar. The Oak Park–River Forest initiative, under Seven Generations Ahead/PlanItGreen, is looking to sign up public sector and education accounts to be supplied by one or more utility-scale solar systems, each the size of two football fields, located most likely in Cook County.

Stay tuned for more details on local community solar plans in the coming months.

—Mark Burger, solar energy consultant for PlanIt Green