How to Go Solar: An Interview with Christina Uzzo of the Citizens Utility Board

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This guest blog post is by RF100 Chicago volunteer Gamze Bilsen, with contributions from CUB’s Deputy Director Sarah Moskowitz

Through the Future Energy Jobs Act of 2016, Illinois has a goal to build 150K households worth of community solar energy projects by 2030, thus providing opportunities for citizens to partake in solar energy with little cost. 

We spoke with Citizens Utility Board’s Christina Uzzo on how Chicagoans and all Illinois residents can switch to solar as the city prepares to be ready for 100% clean energy.

If I’m a homeowner, why should I go solar, and how do I do it?

When you install your own solar energy system, you’re reducing the amount of electricity you need to buy from your power utility, while simultaneously greening our energy system. Right now, the state will also buy your subsequent Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs), which can cover up 30-40% of the installation costs. There are also federal tax credits of 26% until 2022, after which they decrease 4% every year. So the sooner you go solar, the better. If you decide to move forward, you can find different types of installers from Illinois Solar’s website.

What is a Renewable Energy Certificate?

The terms “Renewable Energy Certificate” and “Renewable Energy Credit” are used interchangeably. Each credit represents environmental benefits of renewable energy. These benefits are translated from reduction in fossil fuel emissions on top of other environmental benefits such as water used in fossil fuel power plants. 1 REC equals 1 megawatt/hour of renewable energy, when producing at full capacity. Each REC has a price, providing an income to the electricity generator.

What are the benefits of SREC’s for solar owners? 

Each solar energy generator gets a certain number of RECs that can be sold on the market. The number of RECs you can sell depends on the amount of electricity you’re going to generate over the next 15 years. This number is determined during the installation: The installer you pick inputs specifications of the system and anything else that will affect the generation, such as the slope of the roof and the angle of the panels. Then, the installer or another 3rd party will do an application for the certificates. 

What are the sponsored programs? How can I get funding for my solar installation?

The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) that passed in late 2016 created an array of state programs designed to encourage the adoption of solar power in Illinois. Some programs are income qualified but not all, so I encourage your readers to check out CUB’s website or the state solar website, Illinois Shines, for the latest information. Unfortunately, funding for standard rooftop solar has currently run out, which is why CUB, Sierra Club, and other members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition are fighting to get better clean energy legislation passed in Springfield right now.  

What is a community solar program?

Community solar is a way for people to support and enjoy the benefits of solar without having to actually install solar panels on their property. If you rent, live in an apartment, or can’t install solar on your house for any reason, community solar could be for you. CUB has compiled a lot of info about how it works, including comparisons of the current offers, at Solar in the Community. The current community solar programs are mostly built on farmland out west. Each has a max size of 2,000 kilowatts, around 8 to 10 acres of solar farm. There are currently more than 100 approved projects, with many companies building them. All, however, go through 4 companies to market and sales, which are the portals between builders and electricity consumers. There is currently no more community solar funding—if the Springfield energy law [CEJA] passes, there’ll be more funding for those interested in building new programs. 

I don’t have my own roof—how can I build solar? Who needs to cover the upfront cost?

Again, in this situation, community solar could be the way to go and I encourage readers to check out our Solar in the Community page. Of course, the owner of the building can choose to install solar. How you do it depends on how the building is metered. If each unit has their own electric meter, it gets more complicated. If its master metered, it’s an easier return on investment to the landlord, so they have a higher incentive to go solar. For newer and larger buildings, solar can be used for common areas despite electricity not being master metered.

If my landlord doesn’t want to build solar, how can I go solar?

I would recommend subscribing to an existing community solar project.  You could also purchase RECs directly, to offset your energy usage and help support renewable energy. Yet REC’s aren’t optimal, since they’re usually associated with renewable energy that was built a while ago, and you wouldn’t be supporting more recent renewable development.  

What community solar program should I choose?

Citizens Utility Board has a cheat sheet on the options you have on community solar offers. Two of the companies, Clearway and Nexamp, are very similar as they both offer 20% savings compared to utility supplier rate and are long term subscriptions. Nexamp however doesn’t have a cancellation fee. Then you sign up with Arcadia; you only get an Arcadia statement instead of a ComEd bill. For all of them, you can keep your subscription if you move somewhere else in your utility’s territory.

Head to Solar in the Community to learn more about the solar program!