Solar investments take center stage as questions loom on state’s renewable future

Solar investments take center stage as questions loom on state’s renewable future

By ANDREW ADAMS
Capitol News Illinois
aadams@capitolnewsillinois.com

BOLINGBROOK – A manufacturer in the southwest suburbs of Chicago received $2.6 million from electric utility Commonwealth Edison this week as part of a state program for generating its own electricity using solar panels and storing it in one of the largest batteries in the country. 

But even as solar projects have boomed in Illinois in recent years, the head of the state agency responsible for approving renewable projects said changes to state law may be necessary to phase out fossil fuels by 2050.

G&W Electric Co., which installed a “microgrid” at its Bolingbrook facility, captures energy from the sun using eight football fields’ worth of solar panels and stores the electricity generated in a vanadium redox battery built inside 20 shipping containers.

Company representatives hailed the state-of-the-art battery storage as a step toward resilience to storms and regular disruptions to the electric grid. The solar panels deliver electricity to the factory and keep the batteries charged, with the batteries designed to power the facility during an outage. The company’s chairman and owner, John Mueller, said that project has saved $1.8 million in lost production time due to “microinterruptions” in the factory’s electricity supply since it came online late last year. 

The project received a record-high rebate from ComEd as part of the Distributed Generation Rebate program, which was created in 2017 by the Future Energy Jobs Act and expanded in 2021 with the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. ComEd has given out $130 million in rebates since the program was created. 

The 2-megawatt vanadium redox battery is pictured at G&W Electric, one of the largest in the country. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

Gov. JB Pritzker, speaking at G&W Electric on Monday, said that projects like this are a way that companies can “join the fight against climate change” and that the project was “setting a standard for solar investing.”  

This and other state programs have contributed to an explosion in the number of solar projects in the past 2 ½ years. Pritzker said on Monday that since the passage of CEJA, the state has doubled the percentage of its electricity production that comes from renewables. 

“I’m very pleased about the direction that we’re going,” Pritzker said. “I obviously would like it to accelerate more.” 

The federal Energy Information Administration, which calculates renewable generation independently using a different methodology from the state, reported that in December 2023, the state produced about 15.2 percent of its energy from renewables, behind the national average of 20.9 percent. 

The state’s current goal is to have 40 percent of its retail electricity sales come from renewable energy by 2030. 

The Illinois Power Agency is responsible for managing electricity procurement for the state and manages Illinois’ renewable portfolio by approving renewable energy projects’ contracts. 

Brian Granahan, the acting director of the Illinois Power Agency, said the current pace for solar developments is doing its part to help the state meet its renewable energy goals, but other renewables are falling short. State law sets a goal of solar making up 55 percent of the state’s renewable energy portfolio, with the other 45 percent coming from wind and hydroelectric projects. 

“We’ve made so much progress since CEJA passed,” Granahan told Capitol News Illinois. 

But despite ambitious goals for purchasing energy from wind projects, Granahan said few projects have been approved, calling the situation “very challenging.” 

Across the four “procurement events” the IPA has held since CEJA went into effect, the agency has approved three wind projects compared to the 34 solar projects. An analysis prepared by outside consultants for IPA in May 2023 revealed that two of those events resulted in no new contracts for wind developments at all. 

The flywheel in G&W Electric’s microgrid, shown in its white enclosure, rotates fast enough that it can power the company’s manufacturing facility for 62 seconds, long enough to switch to battery power in the case of a power outage. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams)

This is partly due to developers being forced to navigate a complex system to select sites for wind developments – something the state took control of early last year. Wind development is also facing a downturn in interest nationally, according to Granahan. 

To address this, the legislature may need to revise the state’s energy policy yet again to allow for more flexibility within its goals, according to Granahan. 

“If there isn’t the same interest on behalf of companies developing wind projects, then does it make sense to have these goals by technology hard coded in statute?” Granahan said.

While no specific legislation is pending that would change the requirements for the state’s renewable portfolio, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Pritzker “strongly supports solutions that help Illinois achieve its clean energy goals” and that he would review any legislation passed by the General Assembly. 

The IPA also faces another issue that affects both wind and solar developers: its budget for buying renewable energy. 

Last spring, the agency published an analysis of the budget it uses to purchase renewable energy credits on behalf of utilities. The analysis projected several scenarios based on variable energy prices. 

While the agency is working on an updated version of that report, it highlighted what Granahan called “massive uncertainty” that comes with long-term planning involving energy prices. That uncertainty can result in developers being hesitant to propose new projects because they are uncertain that money will be available to purchase renewable energy in the future. 

“We’re saying to ourselves, ‘Okay, we should be good doing all this activity through 2025, 2026,’” Granahan said. “And then we’ll know more based on what happens in those procurements.” 

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

 

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