Cook County Announces Tools to Broaden Access to Solar Energy

October 23, 2017

Community shared solar power brings equity, jobs and protects the environment

The Cook County Department of Environmental Control and its partners have completed the first-ever assessment of community solar in Cook County, which can help make the benefits of renewable energy more widely available, create jobs and help protect our planet.  

The Cook County Community Solar project found that community solar can be economically viable on a wide variety of sites typically found within the County. If Cook County can capture a large share of this new market, these projects could provide up to 10,000 construction jobs and generate $1.39 billion in construction investment over the next three years.  Cook County’s work is the first step to show individual site owners, and the state agencies that are currently crafting the details of solar incentive programs, what they need to do to make community solar work.

Community shared solar is a sun-powered electric system that provides energy and/or financial benefits to multiple parties; and expands access to solar power for renters, condominium owners, those with shaded roofs and those who choose not to install a residential system on their home, business or other building for financial or other reasons.

This type of solar energy investment is particularly useful in Cook County because it could provide access for the approximately 75 percent of residents currently excluded from the benefits of solar energy due to technical, site-control or financial barriers.  

“Cook County is firmly committed to the fight against climate change. Community solar is an important component of making all of our communities sustainable while providing jobs and savings to our residents,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.

The County and its partners modeled 15 pilot sites to help study community shared solar power in the region. A variety of sites were identified, including a church, high schools, industrial buildings, a community college, a courthouse, a park district field house, a CTA rail maintenance facility and low-income residences. 

The case studies demonstrate that community solar projects can be financially viable for typical sites around the county. For each case study, engineering, solar energy design and economic models showing benefits to developers, site owners, and subscribers are available. The economic models can be downloaded from each.

An effective community solar program is critical to ensure that everyone in Cook County has the opportunity to realize the benefits of renewable solar energy, not just the small percentage that own their buildings and have the capital to pay for up-front investment. While today there are no community solar installations in Cook County, the case studies provide models for how community solar can be economically viable in a variety of circumstances. 

“Community solar is emerging as the way to expand access to solar energy. Cook County’s exciting approach to jumpstarting the market in Illinois will help to ensure the region is catapulted to a national leader in community solar," said Deb Perry, Program Director for the Institute for Sustainable Communities.

Thanks to the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which passed in December 2016, Illinois now has a strong legal framework to support community solar and establish substantial incentives that will be available over the next three years. This legislation incorporated many of the early recommendations from the Cook County project. The report finds, however, that more work is needed to make sure the programs created under the new law will allow community solar projects to be financially viable in Cook County. 

The project was carried out by partners Elevate Energy, Environmental Law and Policy Center, ComEd, the City of Chicago, and technical consultant West Monroe Partners, as well as Cook County. Hundreds of stakeholders and experts contributed their time and expertise.

The $1.2 million project was funded by the U. S. Department of Energy as part of their Solar Market Pathways program. It was one of 15 awarded nationally in 2014 and is part of the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. The initiative is a national effort to drive down the cost of solar electricity and support solar adoption. SunShot aims to make solar energy a low-cost electricity source for all Americans through research and development efforts in collaboration with public and private partners. Learn more at energy.gov/sunshot.