Report: As solar explodes nationwide, Illinois lags behind

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

ComEd Proposals would limit consumer choice, growth of solar

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

With one solar panel in the state for every 49 people, Illinois remained near the bottom of an annual ranking of solar power capacity, and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) would just as soon keep it that way, regarding rooftop solar as a threat to their bottom line and business model. 

Solar power is increasingly popular with consumers who are drawn to it as a way to power their homes with clean renewable energy and save money on energy. In February, solar cleared the milestone of 1 million installations across the country, and is expected to add another million in just two years’ time as prices continue to plummet.

A new study by Environment America Research & Policy Center shows that as embattled utilities witness the growing popularity and adoption of solar energy across the country, they’re girding for a fight everywhere they can. While they are fighting the hardest in states where solar is flourishing the most, they aren’t confining their attacks to the top solar states. 

In April, ComEd persuaded the Illinois legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to stop rules proposed by the Illinois Commerce Commission that would have allowed for the growth of community solar. Community solar makes solar power accessible to more individuals and communities by empowering multiple energy customers to invest in and share the benefits of a shared local solar project. While community solar projects are technically possible under Illinois law, ComEd has wide discretion over whether or not to approve them. In the nearly five years it has had the authority to do so, it has yet to approve one.

In May, ComEd filed legislation that would radically change the way residential customers are charged for electricity in a manner that would effectively end the tried and tested policy, known as “net metering”, which has led to the successful growth of solar in other states. When a similar rate design, known as a “demand charge,” was enacted by an Arizona utility last year, solar applications dropped by over 90%. 

The ComEd rate design proposal met resistance from consumer and low income advocacy advocates for its potential negative impacts on consumers. The legislation was not voted out of committee before the end of the legislative session, but may be voted on during the expected November veto session.

ComEd and its parent company Exelon have also spent years blocking a technical fix to the Illinois renewable energy requirement. This technical problem with the requirement is one of the major impediments to the growth of solar and other renewable energy sources in Illinois. 

“The more consumer demand for solar grows across the country, the more utilities try to stop it,” said Abraham Scarr, Director of Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “Unfortunately, ComEd’s proposal to impose a mandatory demand charge on all residential customers would not only hurt many consumers in the pocket book, but would also put rooftop solar further out of reach for consumers who want to power their homes with clean renewable energy and save money while doing so.”

The study’s top states for solar capacity per capita — Nevada, Hawaii, California, Arizona, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Colorado – have for years held in common pro-clean energy policies, such as strong net metering programs and interconnection standards. But the inducements for growing numbers of homes, businesses and schools to go solar are increasingly under attack by utilities, who view distributed clean energy generation as a direct threat to their business model. 

Last year utilities convinced officials in Hawaii as well as Nevada to eliminate their net metering programs, while earlier this year California’s program narrowly withstood a high-profile utility assault. In Arizona, one major utility placed a new demand charge on new solar customers, depressing rooftop solar power growth in its 1 million-person service area; two other utilities in the state are now pressing to institute similar charges and eliminate their retail net metering programs.

Despite utility attacks, many pro-solar policies remain in the 10 leading-edge states, who make up 88 percent of the nation’s solar capacity but less than a third of its population. All have renewable energy requirements, for example, and nine have strong laws to allow solar customers to connect to the electricity grid.

“In order to benefit from the burgeoning clean energy economy, Illinois needs a package of clean energy policies that work together,” said Lesley McCain, Executive Director of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, the state’s leading voice for solar energy businesses and customers for more than 40 years. “Illinois should follow the lead of states where solar is taking off so we don’t lose much needed new solar jobs and investments to other Midwestern states.” 

Despite the clear negative impacts ComEd’s proposals would have on consumers and their ability to go solar, ComEd has attempted to sell their proposals as pro-consumer and pro-solar. This approach is not surprising given the substantial public support for solar, and the strong public opposition to ComEd’s proposals when described clearly. According to a June poll, 81% percent of Illinois residents oppose ComEd’s demand charge proposal. That opposition remains high, at 74%, even after hearing arguments from both supporters and opposition.

Because solar advocates, companies, installers, and the Illinois Solar Energy Association have all opposed ComEd’s proposals, ComEd founded and is sponsoring the Illinois Smart Solar Alliance to build support for its proposals. The Alliance has begun holding educational meetings this summer including events at DuSable Museum of African American History and Malcolm X College.

Utilities across the country are increasingly proposing demand charges, which charge customers not based on their overall energy consumption, but based on the brief period (for example, 30 minutes) of a customer’s highest usage during an entire billing period. While common for industrial and larger commercial electricity customers, demand charges have never been widely used for residential customers in the United States. A report released this Tuesday, co-authored by John Colgan, former Commissioner at the Illinois Commerce commission, concluded that in most applications demand charges perform poorly when it comes to fairness, efficiency, customer acceptability and utility cost recovery.

Scarr said it was time for ComEd to allow the Illinois consumers viable options to go solar.

“These attacks by ComEd are a desperate finger in the dike against the tide of support for solar,” said Scarr. “With the right public policies in place, rooftop solar empowers consumers to power their homes with clean renewable energy and save money on electricity costs. That’s why it is exploding in states with the right policies in place. It’s time for ComEd to stop limiting consumer choice and ride the solar wave.”