It’s hard to overstate how important passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act was for Illinois’ solar industry. The wide-ranging bill not only made essential reforms to Illinois’ renewable energy mandate and set carve-outs for distributed and community solar, but also jump-started a community solar market in the state through the creation of a block grant program.
However, one of the more ambitious and interesting portions of the program is only being unveiled now, two and a half years after the bill’s passage. This week a series of key documents, including approved vendor manuals and contract requirements, have been posted for the Solar For All program, which seeks to enable greater access to clean energy for low-income and marginalized residents of the state.
Also as of this week, pre-approved developers can begin submitting applications for projects that work within the program’s guidelines.
Spreading the benefits of solar
Solar For All specifically provides renewable energy credit contracts for distributed generation and community solar projects that serve low-income and “environmental justice communities,” as well as non-profits and public facilities serving these communities.
A quarter of all program funds are dedicated to projects in the environmental justice communities, which program administrators selected using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tools, and a “demonstrated higher risk of exposure to pollution based on environmental and socioeconomic factors.” In addition to those already selected, groups or residents may submit proposals for their community to be included.
The state has also already identified a list of six “approved vendors,” including Ameresco, which can apply for RECs to build projects in these communities; the program website notes that this pre-approval is done in part to protect the marginalized communities to be served.
The program is not only set up to ensure that these low-income and environmental justice communities don’t get ripped off by their vendors, but that they see tangible returns from the installation of solar. In fact, the website advertises that residents and organizations that subscribe to these programs will see no up-front costs and bill savings up to 50%.
But this is not all that the program does. There are also dedicated job training and “grassroots education” components.
No lottery this time
The process of developers applying for available incentives has not always gone smoothly under programs related to the Future Energy Jobs Act. The community solar portion of the block grants awarded in January was massively over-subscribed, and developers who did not get in on the initial awards found themselves subject to a lottery system which gave no preference to projects that had completed certain milestones.
This was roundly denounced by developers who pv magazine spoke with. However, it appears that program administrators learned their mistakes, and Solar for All will implement a ranked project selection protocol, instead of a lottery, in the event that the program is over-subscribed. This includes points awarded for utility service area, capacity, involvement of minority- and women-owned businesses, and other criteria.
According to National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), program administrators will first evaluate projects in environmental justice communities, with any projects eligible for that round but not selected eligible to participate in future rounds, and then will evaluate projects in low-income communities.