Cook County faces solar deployment challenges that are familiar to many large metropolitan regions: inconsistent zoning and permit requirements at the municipal level, a large number of multi-family housing units with different ownership structures, and properties with inadequate roofs. These challenges, combined with relatively low electricity costs and an uncertain policy environment, have slowed solar adoption. Although Illinois has strong net metering policies and renewable energy standards, the concept of community solar and virtual billing practices are largely undeveloped.
Despite these challenges, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of solar in the region. The State of Illinois has strong solar targets, mandating 25% of total energy be supplied by renewable energy by 2025, with 6% solar and 1% distributed generation carve-outs. Due to technical constraints, however, the state has yet to make significant progress toward its distributed generation goals. Cook County has leveraged Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant funding to work with nearly 60 partners on more than 90 energy efficiency projects. Through a partnership with local organizations and the City of Chicago, Cook County launched Solar Chicago to lessen the soft costs of advertising and client recruitment for solar installers and incentivize residential solar.
The Cook County Solar Market Pathways project will inventory the current community solar marketplace in northeast Illinois and identify potential suitable sites, customer base, and demand. Through a review of inventories of owned and managed lands, Cook County and partner Elevate Energy will assess the suitability for community solar of vacant lots and rooftops and develop appropriate ownership, financing, and management models for each eligible site. The project team and partners will advance at least three of the five pilot projects to full plans with the goal of creating replicable models and best practices to guide other projects in the region and the country. These case studies will identify, describe, and define community solar configurations and installation models, identify typical barriers and appropriate solutions and identify project-ready sites and potential investments in Cook County.
The Cook County project team began their project with an opportunity analysis aimed at quantifying shared solar market potential by site, characteristics or type, subscriber type, and ownership model. The data was acquired from both local and national resources using national best practices for site screening and evaluation tailored to local needs and criteria. The project team also completed a Solar Best Practices Analysis to identify model programs and promising practices in community solar. Compiled from leading authorities on community solar and an examination of case studies of successful programs, this analysis provides a framework and clear pathway for establishing policy positions to incentivize and accelerate community solar in Cook County.
The Cook County team, with support from the National Community Solar Partnership, polled various regional and national stakeholders to develop a valid value proposition analysis for community solar to develop the Shared Solar Value Proposition. 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.
The team also developed the Utility Billing Impacts of Community Solar document, which analyzes the potential bill-crediting processes for subscriber management of a community solar project. Finding a workable bill-crediting mechanism has been a barrier for Cook County in planning the implementation of demonstration pilots, with manual or fully automated processes being too burdensome for the utility. During this analysis, a significantly less costly semi-automated process was developed.
In March 2017, the Cook County team released the Community Solar Business Case Tool, which allows 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.
Cook County established a stakeholder advisory group to inform the project. Consisting of nonprofits, community organizations, local developers, multifamily housing agencies, higher education institutions, utilities, businesses, and more, this group has met every six months to learn about progress made and provide input on the project. Throughout 2015, stakeholders were involved in working groups to address barriers and identify solutions in the following areas of community solar: business case and business models, policy and regulatory barriers; and outreach and education.
The project team also engaged in working sessions with the local utility to address bill crediting and rate structure. The first analysis detailed and quantified potential bill crediting solutions. Subsequent working sessions also produced an important analysis that measured the impact of various project components and potential rate structures on system payback.
The site selection process for pilot development was launched at a stakeholder advisory group meeting which targeted Cook County property owners and encouraged them to consider hosting community solar. At the close of the submittal period, 109 properties were submitted for consideration and 75 of those were deemed suitable for community solar. The project team received both rooftop and ground mount submissions distributed across Cook County for apartment buildings, commercial properties, schools, municipalities, park facilities, and brownfields.
In April 2017, Cook County announced that 15 of the sites had been selected for further analysis. For each site, the Cook County project team will provide a solar energy case study and engineering assessment to identify project costs and any barriers. These pilot sites are expected to create replicable models and provide lessons learned to help guide other site owners in the region. By establishing models for community solar through the selection of a diverse set of pilot sites, Cook County is seeking to educate others about potential renewable energy development opportunities and starting to address typical barriers faced by these types of projects.