(Solar Energy Industries Association)
Cook County is more than halfway through a multiyear project that aims to make solar energy more affordable for residents.
The initiative is part of a nationwide effort to reduce the cost of solar energy and accelerate solar production. Launched in 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Market Pathways project awarded funding to 15 recipients, including $1.2 million to Cook County.
The county is partnering with several groups as part of the effort, including the city of Chicago, Elevate Energy, Environmental Law & Policy Center, ComEd and West Monroe Partners.
“We recognize that probably more than three-fourths of Cook County residents cannot take advantage of solar power on their own roofs,” said Deborah Stone, chief sustainability officer for the county’s Department of Environmental Control.
Because many people rent apartments or live in condos, they don’t have the authority to install solar panels on their roofs. Even if they did, solar projects involve significant startup costs and take five to seven years before generating a profit, Stone said.
“A lot of people cannot simply afford to make an upfront investment in solar,” she said.
(State of Community Solar in Cook County)As part of the project, Cook County has been developing a handful of solar demonstration sites on rooftops and vacant parcels of land. Although the Energy Department funding does not cover full implementation of solar units, it allows the county to analyze the design and technical and financial feasibility of larger-scale, community solar projects.
The pilot sites will serve as case studies for future solar projects at different types of buildings, Stone said. The project will also evaluate various economic models for community solar development, like buying shares upfront (a sort of solar co-op membership), subscribing to receive energy from a site or securing energy through a utility-sponsored program.
On a broader scale, the project will also assess the current marketplace for community solar projects in northeast Illinois and identify potential markets.
There is already some interest in community solar. When the county asked for participants for the pilot program, 109 sites applied, Stone said.
Some of the sites are featured on a Cook County Solar Map published on Elevate Energy’s website. The map serves as a public platform for municipal planners, property owners and developers to identify rooftops and parcels of vacant land that could accommodate larger solar projects.
According to Elevate Energy, the map identifies about 3,000 parcels of land in Cook County that are suitable for community solar, along with 45,000 rooftops in Chicago.