Spurred by record-low equipment costs and state-sponsored incentives, solar installation companies are flocking to Illinois. One of the fast-growing solar markets involves partnering with farmers willing to lease some of their acreage to cultivate solar energy rather than crops.
Dozens or sometimes hundreds of solar panels are lined up in fields, angled to maximize the absorption of the sun’s rays. The energy is transmitted to the nearest power substation and mixed in with the utility’s power supply. It’s become lucrative for both landowners and the solar companies that own and maintain the equipment.
A Minnesota company, Innovative Power Solutions, has several projects in the works in St. Clair County. This week, Belleville issued a special use permit for a four-megawatt installation on land near Eckert’s Farm. The company also got approval from St. Clair County for solar arrays in six locations on a large farm, producing up to 12 megawatts altogether.
The projects are not a done deal, however. IPS is applying for renewable energy credits through the state of Illinois, but the company will need some luck to get them. The program, launched in 2017, has become so popular that the state is moving to a lottery system for the next round of approvals in January.
“There’s a threshold where economics will make it worthwhile,” said Evan Carlson of IPS. “We’re unlikely to move forward if we don’t get the energy credits.”
‘So much growth’
St. Louis-based Straight Up Solar is also pinning its hopes on the Illinois energy lottery. The company contracted with 12 farms in Illinois, for projects sized from one to two megawatts each. The larger ones will have as many as 8,000 panels. This is new territory for the company, as it has mostly done smaller installations of up to 400 panels.
“To date, the market in Missouri has been primarily small commercial and residential because of caps on what you can connect to the grid. In Illinois, the legislation is just now hitting,” said Erin Noble, director of business operations at Straight Up Solar. “That’s why we’re seeing so much growth.”
The solar industry in Missouri is actually larger than in Illinois, producing a total of 167 megawatts versus 90 in Illinois. But experts say that Illinois, ranked 34th nationwide in solar capacity, is poised to grow to 1,856 megawatts in the next five years, putting the state in 11th place and well on its way to meeting the legislation’s goal to get to 3,000 megawatts by 2030.
Missouri, on the other hand, is only predicted to grow to 214 megawatts over the next five years. The state currently ranks 29th in the country for solar capacity.
“Illinois has deregulated the way they make and transmit power so it’s competitive,” said James Owen of Renew Missouri, a lobbying group working to advance renewable energy and energy efficiency. “In Missouri, all aspects are regulated, so utilities have more of a monopoly.”
Owen said the utilities are starting to move toward having solar as part of their portfolio. The price of wind and solar is making it easier, but Missouri “has no real incentives.”
“Our laws don’t make it easy to finance, to use solar, to have it as an option. The laws could be much better in Missouri,” Owen said.
Noble, who is a board member of both Renew Missouri and the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, said the industry has been working hard to improve the state’s solar policies.
Current laws “are limiting Missouri’s ability to expand solar, and limiting job growth,” she said.
Noble added that Missouri prohibits financing to lease solar-energy systems, which also stifles industry growth. “There are smart solar policies that other states have, and we can learn from them,” she said.
Cheaper Solar Prices
Besides the environmental benefits that renewable energy brings, proponents say that switching to solar makes good economic sense. The cost of electricity from solar panels is now lower than the cost of retail electricity for most people, and equipment prices have fallen drastically.
“We’ve seen solar panel prices come down 95 percent. It’s changing the landscape quickly,” said Eric Pasi of IPS, which has been in business for 28 years.
“Renewables used to be expensive but now they’re affordable,” said Peter Gray, spokesperson for the Illinois Solar Energy Association. “Solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels in most parts of the country.”
As a cost-saving measure, a lot of community colleges and universities are looking to build solar, Gray said. “They know they’ll be there, in that location, a long time. The economics work out. They are using rooftops or an open piece of land — all are on the grid but the power they’re producing goes first to their own use.”
In 2016, the National Solar Jobs Census found that there 260,000 new jobs in solar were added nationwide. This was twice the number of added workers in 2012. Missouri and Illinois have seen considerable growth as well.
Renewable energy generation is the third-largest clean energy job sector in Missouri with 2,663 solar jobs last year, according to the Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs. A report by the two groups shows that 470 jobs were added statewide between 2015 and 2016. Solar energy jobs employ almost three times as many people as do wind energy jobs.
“We’ve grown from 18 to 58 people in the last year and a half, and will get to 70 in next few months,” said Noble, of Straight Up Solar. “That’s pretty reflective of what you’re seeing nationwide. It’s a really cool growth trend. Solar is proliferating faster than cellphones.”
In Illinois, the solar industry employs about 3,570 people. The Future Energy Jobs Act is expected to ramp this number up considerably.
The law, which passed in 2016, requires 4,300 megawatts of new solar and wind power to be built in Illinois by 2030. The state is providing $30 million to create clean energy-related job training programs over the next 12 years in order to support the additional workers that will be needed.
Noble said that a new solar ray is installed every 2.5 minutes in the U.S. “There’s enough solar in the U.S. to power 11 million homes. And that number is anticipated to double in the next five years.”
“There’s so much more that can be done to leverage this huge economic development opportunity,” Noble said.