Highlights

  • Demonstrated replicable models for community solar and identified structural and policy barriers to community solar and how they might be overcome.
  • Facilitated affordable access to solar to enable 30,000 people in Cook County and nearly 45,000 people in the region to gain access to solar by 2022.
  • Democratized access to solar for urban populations, especially for underserved demographics, including seniors, low-income households, apartment and condominium residents, and other Cook County residents who are not able to invest in on-site solar electric installations.

Background

In 2014, the national community solar market experienced a notable growth spurt as more states, utilities, and communities started turning to community solar as a way to enable multiple customers to access and share the benefits of a single solar project. The state of Illinois, however, continued to lack both a statewide community solar policy and voluntary utility programs.

Recognizing the opportunity and potential to expand solar access through community solar—especially in densely-populated urban environments—Cook County, Illinois partnered with the City of Chicago, Elevate Energy, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the local investor-owned utility ComEd, and technical consultant West Monroe Partners to overcome the education, information, and market barriers to community solar and demonstrate replicable community solar models through pilot projects in the county.

Through the engagement of more than 175 local stakeholders, the development of innovative tools, the identification of best practices, and the robust analysis of costs and benefits, Cook County has served as a catalyst for long-term community solar success throughout Illinois by building a strong foundation upon which the state’s newly enabled community solar market can grow. In the end of 2016, the Illinois Legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Act (SB 2814), which includes a community solar framework—informed by lessons from the Cook County SMP project—that will set the stage for long-term community solar growth. The tools developed through this project are intended to be adapted for use by other communities throughout the state interested in developing community solar in the near term.

Assessing Solar Potential and Analyzing Best Practices

Report:
State of Community Solar in Cook County State of Community Solar in Cook County
Author:  Cook County

This report details the state of community solar in Cook County in June 2015. Despite growing interest, the research found no community solar projects installed in Cook County.

The Cook County project team began by researching and publishing a report on the state of community solar in Cook County. This report found that the county had no community solar projects, despite a growing interest in solar. The project team also completed an opportunity assessment to quantify shared solar market potential by site, subscriber type, and ownership model. The data—acquired from both local and national resources using screening and evaluation best practices tailored to local needs—found the total community solar capacity in Cook County to be over 9,000 MW, enough to power more than 1.2 million single-family homes for one year.

These baseline assessments allowed community solar stakeholders to understand the local community solar landscape and its potential for growth, and provided data to support the need for robust community solar policies.

Resources

Report:
Community Solar Best Practices Analysis Community Solar Best Practices Analysis
Author:  Cook County

The study identifies model programs and national best practices in Community Solar and provides a baseline framework for policy positions to accelerate community solar in Cook County.

Report:
Community Solar Opportunity Assessment for Cook County Community Solar Opportunity Assessment for Cook County
Author:  Cook County

This analysis quantifies the shared solar market potential by site, characteristics or type, subscriber type, and ownership model in the county.

 

Identifying Best Practices and Policy Barriers

Using information from leading authorities and case studies of successful programs, the project team completed a Community Solar Best Practices Analysis to identify model programs and establish a clear framework for implementing policies that would incentivize and accelerate community solar in Cook County. This analysis highlighted the importance of incentives and rate structures—such as virtual net metering—to the economic viability of community solar projects.

In early 2015, the project team established a policy working group to identify existing or potential barriers to creating a community solar market in Illinois. Using the seven barriers outlined by the policy working group, the project team developed the Economic and Policy Barriers Resolution Work Plan, which provides an analysis of the seven barriers, potential resolutions, and recommended next steps for developing community solar in Cook County.

Analyzing the Economics of Community Solar in Cook County

The Cook County team, with support from the National Community Solar Partnership, polled regional and national stakeholders to develop a valid value proposition analysis for community solar. Based on this analysis, the team completed Value Proposition – Part I, which found a positive business case for both community solar subscribers and system owners under the scenario analyzed. Value Proposition – Part II, released in April 2017, incorporated utility impacts and provisions from the Future Energy Jobs Act legislation passed in December 2016.

The team also developed the Utility Billing Impacts of Community Solar document, which analyzes potential bill-crediting processes for subscriber management of community solar projects. A major barrier to implementing the demonstration pilots was finding an efficient and cost-effective bill-crediting mechanism, as manual or fully automated processes proved too burdensome for the utility. During this analysis, the team identified a significantly less costly semi-automated process.

In March 2017, the Cook County team released the Community Solar Business Case Tool, allowing developers and subscribers to analyze the costs and benefits of a community solar project. Stakeholders can use this tool to determine the value proposition of investing in community solar.

To understand the local impacts of community solar projects, the team completed the Community Solar Local Benefits Analysis, which calculated local net benefits, including job creation, economic activity, and environmental impacts, using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Jobs and Economic Development Impact solar modeling tool. The analysis found that Cook County could add more than 2,000 jobs and $283 million in economic activity between 2018 and 2030 based on community solar deployment estimates.

Resources

Report:
Utility Billing Impacts of Community Solar Utility Billing Impacts of Community Solar
Author:  Cook County

This report analyzes the potential bill-crediting processes for subscriber management of a community solar project.

Report:
Shared Solar Value Proposition – Part I Shared Solar Value Proposition – Part I
Author:  Cook County

This document contains the analysis of the value proposition for subscribers and developers and an overall summary report of the value proposition for community solar.

Report:
Shared Solar Value Proposition – Part II Shared Solar Value Proposition – Part II
Author:  Cook County

Building from Part I, this analysis includes utility impacts and provisions of the 2016 legislation. Results show a positive business case for system owners and subscribers.

Report:
Community Solar Local Benefits Analysis Community Solar Local Benefits Analysis
Author:  Cook County

This assessment explores potential economic, environmental and energy benefits associated with construction and maintenance of community solar installations at scale.

 
Report:
Cook County Economic and Policy Barriers Resolution Workplan Cook County Economic and Policy Barriers Resolution Workplan
Author:  Cook County

This workplan describes the barriers that were identified by the Cook County Policy Working Group, analyzes potential options and provides next steps to achieve resolution.

 

Stakeholder Engagement

An integral part of the success of the Cook County initiative has been its consistently high level of stakeholder engagement. At the outset of the project, the Cook County project team identified relevant stakeholders and formed a steering committee and a stakeholder advisory group to inform the project’s development and implementation. The project team secured early buy-in from local stakeholders, including nonprofits, community organizations, local developers, multifamily housing agencies, higher education institutions, utilities, and local businesses.

Throughout the process, the project team worked with and learned from these stakeholders and national experts to address barriers and identify solutions related to the business case for community solar, business models, the value of solar from a utility standpoint, policy and regulatory barriers, and outreach and communication. The project team maintained this strong stakeholder interest and buy-in through regular meetings, which provided a forum for stakeholders to stay engaged and informed about the Cook County project and the state’s concurrent community solar policy process.

Though the project officially ended in September 2017, the Cook County team has continued to engage with stakeholders to share information and updates on the process to implement new community solar rules in Illinois. In November 2017, Cook County held a community solar webinar featuring local government representatives from Cook County and Will County, Illinois and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The webinar provided an overview of the tools and resources created by Cook County, key considerations for developing requests for proposals, and the steps local governments can take to prepare for solar development. In January 2018, Cook County hosted a webinar that highlighted a new tool being developed by The Accelerate Group that will help connect community solar developers with potential subscribers and communities interested in hosting a community solar facility.

Demonstration Site Selection

Looking beyond the data gathered during the initial analysis and review process, the Cook County team decided to pursue a set of demonstration projects to understand the actual barriers to creating a robust community solar market. Cook County initiated the pilot site selection process for these projects at a stakeholder advisory group meeting targeting Cook County property owners to encourage them to consider hosting community solar. By the close of the submittal period, the team had received overwhelming interest from the community—109 properties were submitted for consideration, and 75 of these were deemed suitable for community solar. The project team received both rooftop and ground mount submissions distributed across Cook County from nonprofits, commercial properties, schools, municipalities, park facilities, and brownfields.

In April 2017, the project team selected 15 sites for further analysis based on criteria including size, slope, obstructions, and roof life. The sites represent a diversity of uses, panel mount locations, size, and locations across the county. The sites were first analyzed by the local utility to determine grid impacts and then by an independent engineering firm to assess structural integrity and other issues. The project team provided details on the demonstration site evaluation process in the Community Solar Case Study Overview. Though this project did not provide funding for installation, it did provide roadmaps for developers and site owners looking to begin the development process through detailed case studies. These case studies include a host site description, a structural assessment, a preliminary interconnection report, financial modeling, an ownership and financing structure, a customer acquisition strategy, and operations and management planning.

The site selection process demonstrated the great interest in community solar in Cook County, and is expected to catalyze further development as property owners and developers begin to understand the potential for shared solar on different types of properties and the benefits that can be realized by both owners and subscribers.

In its final report, Community Solar for Cook County, the project team provided an overview of the project, including the goals, products developed, key findings, and demonstration sites evaluated. This report can provide a roadmap for other communities interested in understanding the barriers to community solar in their regions and the steps they can take to address those barriers and expand community solar markets.

Lessons Learned and Key Takeaways

  • Stakeholder engagement was key to the success of the project, resulting in early buy-in from diverse stakeholders and sustained interest throughout the project. The project structure included a steering committee, a stakeholder advisory group, and working groups with clearly defined responsibilities.
  • The Illinois electric utilities were integral partners throughout the process. ComEd served on the steering committee and was a key partner in the demonstration site analysis process.
  • The open solicitation and site selection process sparked great interest in community solar among property owners and developers, setting the stage for future community solar development beyond the selected Cook County demonstration projects.
  • The tools and approaches used in this project provide a useful roadmap for other communities developing and implementing future community solar projects.