Illinois solar program continues to develop, solar job numbers begin to grow

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The development of the Illinois solar market seems to be taking a cue from Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: ”Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast”. Administrative pieces are steadily being assembled at the state level, potential projects continue to line up, and employment opportunities have grown over the 18 months since passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA).

The Illinois Power Agency (IPA) made more moves toward full operation of solar programs under FEJA on August 6, by launching the Adjustable Block Program website for potential vendors of PV systems. The site will be open for vendor registration on November 1, 2018, and for project applications by approved vendors on January 15, 2019.

Due to the potential of over 1,000 MW of community solar projects, the IPA has said that it will develop criteria for a lottery. Potential community solar subscribers will eventually have access to view a list of approved community solar projects with contact information. The final Long-Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan as ordered by the Illinois Commerce Commission has also been released.

The potential of PV projects in Illinois is beginning to resemble planes stacked up at O’Hare airport on a holiday. At ComEd’s “Solar Forum” in Oak Brook on August 6, the latest numbers of proposed solar installations in their interconnection application queue were presented. There was 868 projects totaling 1,299 MW of capacity, broken down as follows:

  • 21 utility scale (above 2 MW) projects totaling 184 MW
  • 552 community solar projects (up to 2 MW) totaling 1,075 MW
  • 54 commercial and industrial projects (over 10 kW up to 2 MW) at 38 MW
  • 241 residential projects (under 10 kW) at 2 MW

Many of these projects, particularly the larger ones, are expected to fall by the wayside due to interconnection issues or other problems like permitting, zoning, or financing. There is expected to be a particularly high casualty rate for community solar projects, as somewhat over 100 MW of solar renewable energy credits (SREC) are expected to be available in the first procurement in January 2019. Interconnection queue numbers have not been available from Ameren Illinois or MidAmerican Energy, the other two major investor-owned utilities in Illinois.

The ComEd Solar Forum also had panel discussions on the training and hiring of workers, primarily installers, in the Illinois market, reflecting the promise of opportunity from the Future Energy Jobs Act. The pipeline of training has been relatively small, in line with startup issues and the timing of not getting ahead of available jobs.

Training providers like the Safer Foundation, Opportunity Advancement Innovation, Illinois Central College, Elevate Energy, Chicago Urban League and others reported running between one to four training sessions each of between 15 and 30 participants in both the “hard” skills of solar and construction technologies, as well as “soft” skills of resumes, interviewing, communication and business fundamentals. Sessions were also offered for potential and existing contractors as well as workers. Particular efforts were made to recruit at-risk cohorts like ex-offenders and youth from low-income communities. Some graduates were already getting hired or being actively considered for employment.

The pace of potential and actual employment being presently estimated in the hundreds, not thousands, is reflected in announcements and articles of new and existing companies expanding solar operations in Illinois. Online searches for bona fide jobs in “Illinois” and “solar” at portals like Google and Indeed list somewhat over 100 positions. Vivint Solar recently announced its intention to create over 100 jobs in Illinois, primarily in the residential market, and Sunrun over 80 positions. Ranger Power, developer of utility-scale installations in Southern Illinois, expects to create around 200 jobs in construction. A dozen other employers expect to immediately add anywhere from 5 to 30 positions to their existing workforce.

These numbers may increase as ground breaking of large systems happen in 2019 and beyond, and the rooftop markets grow. Illinois has been a middling market for solar employment, with the Solar Foundation’s Solar Jobs Census reporting 3,571 full and part time jobs in the industry in 2017, down from 3,718 in 2016. About 1,299 of these jobs were in installation, followed by smaller numbers in project development, sales, distribution and manufacturing.