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