What considerations are important when thinking about large-scale deployment of renewable energy?
Scott Vogt: Key considerations include project size, land requirements and project location. Large projects are usually in rural areas where there is more land and usually at lower prices. But when a large renewable energy project is located in a rural area, the cost of connecting it may be higher, as the electrical infrastructure may need to be upgraded as it was not designed for this new technology. Under Illinois law, these upgrade costs are borne by the project itself and will always present challenges when everyone wants the project to be as efficient as possible. ComEd has created a hosting capacity map that developers can use to help them find areas in our service territory where existing electric infrastructure may be more cost-effective for them to locate their project.
Elbert Walters III: Large-scale deployment of renewable energy can have a big impact on reducing our carbon footprint. To ensure that these types of projects are sustainable, it is important to ensure that backup power sources are available if needed. These can include battery storage components to provide power at night or on rainy days, or the ability to plug into a microgrid to use traditional power sources if needed. Other options include backup generators that can power facilities in an emergency until the primary power source is restored, working in conjunction with other systems as a fail-safe option.
Anna Dirkswager: Significant expansion of onshore wind and solar generation will require massive areas of land and early planning is needed to avoid conflicts. Princeton University’s Net-Zero America report estimates that in the United States, the renewable energy resources needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 could require a footprint of 228,000 square miles—more than Wyoming and Colorado combined. Failure to overcome these conflicts will delay the transition to renewable energy and have significant implications for land and water conservation. By including nature in energy planning, smart siting tools like Site Renewables Right (nature.org/SiteRenewablesRight) and buying, we can achieve a zero-carbon future as quickly as possible while limiting the impact on natural and agricultural lands.
What effect will the Climate and Fair Jobs Act that passed in Illinois last year have on the solar market?
Elbert Walters III: It will help speed it up. Thanks to the state’s commitment to 100 percent clean energy by 2050 — with 40 percent clean energy by 2030 — Illinois is poised to see solar and other renewable energy components become even more mainstream. With the implementation of the IBEW/NECA Technical Institute’s Renewable Energy Training Field, Powering Chicago members will remain the most qualified workforce to complete these projects.
Scott Vogt: CEJA will significantly increase the amount of solar energy in Illinois due to a 270% increase in the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) budget and other renewable energy-related modifications. ComEd estimates that we will go from nearly 500 MW of solar generation on the system today to 2,700 MW by 2030, including rooftop and community solar systems. We’ve had 10,000 interconnection applications each year for the past three years and will likely exceed 16,000 this year, not including utility-scale projects, which we expect to grow significantly as well.
Anna Dirkswager: Passage of this act encourages the solar market to take off in Illinois. Through CEJA’s Coal-to-Solar Energy Storage initiative, for example, incentives are offered to companies that install energy storage facilities on the sites of former coal plants. This maintains a clean and reliable electricity grid, but also provides economic benefits to local communities. Another key component of the market is the smart siting of renewable energy sources, as up to 75% of new large national renewable energy projects will occur in the central US
How can we ensure that the benefits of solar energy are shared fairly with the communities that need it most?
Scott Vogt: ComEd buys renewable energy credits (RECs) from solar facilities across the state. RECs certify ownership of electricity generated from renewable energy resources, and they are withdrawn on behalf of all customers when they are fed back into the grid — meaning everyone in Illinois wins. CEJA creates other equitable energy solutions, including increased support for the state’s Solar for All program, which provides incentives that make solar more affordable for income-eligible homeowners and renters. Solar for All will receive $50 million annually to invest in solar facilities in communities in need, allowing income-eligible customers to participate in rooftop or community solar. Under our Give-A-Ray program, ComEd has three community solar projects in which low- to moderate-income households can participate for free and realize savings of up to $1,000 per year on their electric bills over a three-year period.
Elbert Walters III: The Climate and Fair Jobs Act provides grant programs and consumer protections for Illinoisans so they can install safe and affordable renewable energy components that may otherwise be unavailable. With a network of licensed contractors and a skilled union workforce, Powering Chicago covers every corner of Chicago and Cook County to ensure that those interested in installing solar or other renewable energy systems can do so safely and with access to the newly available state grants.
Anna Dirkswager: Programs like Illinois’ Solar for All ensure that renewable energy sources are used in historically underserved communities and that the immediate benefits that renewable energy sources can provide, such as lower utility bills, improved financial security and better air quality are delivered to these communities. Access to affordable electricity must be universal and equity must be central to the tools we use to address climate change.