Let the Sun Shine!

A once-abandoned 40-acre industrial site in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood has become home to 32,000 solar panels since December, part of the nation’s largest solar plant capable of generating 10 megawatts of clean power. That’s enough to power 1,500 homes.  According to Kevin Lynch, who trains electricians to install solar panels for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), “We have been frustrated over the years that solar has not become more mainstream.  We understand it’s still a relatively expensive technology, but the cost is much less than it was a few years ago.”  The cost of photovoltaic solar panels – the biggest obstacle to the growth of solar energy – fell 40 percent last year, thanks to a supply glut, the Solar Energy Industry Association notes, creating increased interest in this clean energy source.

The solar plant’s owner, Exelon Corporation, financed the $62 million project by taking advantage of local real estate and federal tax incentives.  The firm wants to recoup even more of the upfront expense by selling solar renewable energy credits.  Across the country, there are more than 22,000 megawatts of large-scale solar plants under development – enough to power 4.4 million homes.  The federal government is providing a 30 percent manufacturing tax credit that has spurred the development of 58 new solar plants, according to Jared Blanton of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Even with this emphasis on solar power, the majority of Illinois’ clean energy still comes from the wind.  By 2025, the state’s utilities must obtain at least 25 percent of their energy from green sources.  According to Mark Burger, president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association,

75 percent of that must come from Illinois’ reliable wind; just six percent will be derived from solar power.  Supporters believe that Illinois must change the rules that determine how solar producers are paid for net metering – the way in which they are paid for exporting clean electricity to the grid.  If the legislature acts to clarify that, solar power has the potential to thrive in Illinois.