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Want solar panels, but can't afford them? Cook County's working to set up co-ops

Monday, April 03, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Cheryl V. Jackson

Want solar panels, but can't afford them? Cook County's working to set up co-ops

1 of
John Konstantaras / Chicago Tribune
Edward Carrico and Spencer Kearney, who work with Solar Service in Niles, install solar panels on a home in Lake Zurich March 28.

By Cheryl V. Jackson, Blue Sky Innovation

6:00 am, April 3, 2017

Solar panels are cheaper than ever, but many renters, condo-owners and low-income families aren't able to take advantage of the flaming ball of energy in the sky.

A Cook County project is working to change that, helping set up new solar energy co-ops that would let people who can't install their own solar panels tap into a shared pool of power.

The Department of Environmental Control and partner groups are laying the groundwork for solar panels at 15 pilot sites across the county, including determining how to outfit property with panels for community-shared solar power, assess subscriber interest and market to users.

Community solar allows power from a single solar array to be shared by numerous households and businesses in a community. Through the systems, individuals would be able to "rent" panels and get reduced electric bills.

It's part of the Cook County Solar Market Pathways project, funded by a 2014 $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The grant won't pay for the actual installation of solar panels, but it will provide reports and analysis that'll pave the way.

The project also looks at the community solar marketplace in the county, identifies suitable available sites and demand, and analyzes the economics of different ownership models.

The county hopes the pilot sites — a mix of sizes and uses across the county, including schools, business and vacant land — can serve as models for groups associated with similar buildings or property.

Aiding residents and organizations in accessing solar energy is important to the county's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, said Deborah Stone, Cook County's chief sustainability officer and director of the Department of Environmental Control.

"We're making really good progress at our own buildings, but there's 1.9 million buildings in Cook County. There's over 5 million residents. We're not going to make an impact unless we help the community," she said.

About 75 percent of households can't install solar on their roofs because they rent, don't get enough sun, have structural issues or can't afford the upfront installation costs, according to Elevate Energy, one of the county's partners in the program.

About 42 percent of Cook County households live in rental units, and another 16 percent live in condos, Stone said.

"And because we have such income disparities in Cook County, we have a large portion of residents who wouldn't have enough savings or upfront cash to invest in solar, we're not going to make headway on our sustainability goals unless we can make solar accessible to everybody," she said.

The solar market in Illinois is growing after the passage last fall of an energy bill that calls for creation of community solar programs. The law provides credits on electric bills to subscribers who buy or lease solar panels in such programs, said MeLena Hessel, policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which pushed for the legislation and is also a partner in the Cook County project.

Part of the legislation, which takes effect in June, calls for 200 community solar projects — enough to power about 23,000 homes — to be developed over the next few years. It also will provide incentives to low- and moderate-income households and nonprofit organizations to help pay for the cost of solar or community solar.

"We really see community solar as the keystone to expanding solar access, to enabling folks that don't have roofs of their own, that live in apartments or for whatever reason can't put it on their own roofs to enjoy the benefits," Hessel said.

It's not uncommon for some low income households to spend up to 30 percent of their income on energy bills, said Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy.

"That's substantial when you're making trade-offs between staying current on your electric bill and dealing with medicine and food," Evens said.

Community solar could save $25 to $30 a month on the average low-income household's energy bill, Evens said.

One of the sites the county is studying for community solar panels is Hill Arboretum Apartments, at 2040 Brown Ave. in Evanston, where Leo Kirwan has lived for more than 20 years.

The building is operated by Over The Rainbow Association, a nonprofit group that provides housing for people with physical disabilities. Kirwan is past chairman of the organization.

Kirwan and other residents can save about 5 percent on their energy bills the first year, and more in the future, according to Elevate Energy.

"Most of our people here are on a very, very, very low-income status," he said. "Most of our people average around $900 a month. It would be very, very helpful for the low income to obtain this program because it's so necessary for their pocketbook."

Over The Rainbow's Executive Director Eric Huffman said the organization is also considering installing community solar at its other 10 locations to reduce costs for those residents while also benefiting the surrounding communities — depending on the results of the Evanston study.

"The most important thing for us to to be a really good community partner in every one of the 11 communities we're in," he said. "If there's a way to work with residents of the 5th Ward of Evanston to provide cheaper energy to those folks, that's something we'd really be interested in doing."

Vito Greco, manager of Elevate Energy's solar program, said engineering work is underway on structural assessments for the pilots, to be followed by financial models. Case studies are expected to be completed over the next three months.

The first completed community solar projects in the state will likely come from the group of 15 in Cook County, he said.

"What we'll do with these case studies is we'll help many, many others who are excited about this, and give them a roadmap on how it gets done," Greco said. "At the heart of the program is these 15 case studies that have been willing to open up their electric bills, their roofs, and allow us to design something that looks like a real project that people can relate to, touch, and feel — and more importantly, look at the profit and loss statement on to see how this stuff really works."

The other sites being studied are:

Theaster Gates' Studio and Residence, headquarters of the Rebuild Foundation, 7200 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago

Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago

Altgeld Gardens Homes, a property of the Chicago Housing Authority, Block 16, 134th Street and Corliss Avenue, Chicago

3057 N. Rockwell St., a Rockwell Properties LLC commercial/industrial redevelopment in Chicago

4150 N. Knox Ave., WBS Equities' new-construction industrial development in Chicago

Warren Park Field House, a Chicago Park District facility, 6601 N. Western Ave., Chicago

CTA Rail Heavy Maintenance Facility, 3701 W. Oakton, Skokie

Housing Authority of Cook County, vacant land in Chicago Heights

Prairie State College, 202 S. Halsted St., Chicago Heights

United Airlines Training and Data Center, 1200 E. Algonquin Rd., Des Plaines

Des Plaines-Lake Landfill, a property of the Archdiocese of Chicago, 9800 W. Central Rd., Des Plaines

Rich East High School, 300 Sauk Trail, Park Forest

Markham Courthouse, 16501 S. Kedzie Ave., Markham

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 1175 Grove St., Glenview

Cheryl V. Jackson is a freelance writer.
Twitter @cherylvjackson

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