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Special interest groups are working in coordination with local utilities to stall the growth of rooftop solar here in Illinois, according to a new report released Thursday by Environment Illinois Research & Education Center and Illinois PIRG Education Fund. In Illinois, Ameren Illinois attempted to replace net metering, the policy used in 40 states, Washington, D.C., and some U.S. territories to ensure solar panel owners receive fair compensation for the clean energy they supply to the electric grid, with lower payments to solar owners.
The report, Blocking Rooftop Solar, pulls the curtain back on the playbook promoted by a national network of pro-fossil fuel lobbying groups and adopted by many utilities. These groups are campaigning to stop the growth of rooftop solar in Illinois and Ohio, Florida, California, Kansas, South Carolina and at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This years-long, multi-state effort involves coordinating strategies, tactics and funding for anti-solar campaigns. Specifically, their plan includes:
Restrictions on or the elimination of net metering programs.
New fixed charges on solar power system owners.
To win these changes, special interests create “astro-turf” front groups with neutral names like the Consumer Energy Alliance, in an attempt to influence decision makers to support anti-solar legislation or regulations.
“Rooftop solar is helping to clean up the air in our communities and empowering homeowners and businesses to generate their own electricity,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director. “Utilities and special interests are putting up obstacles to rooftop solar’s success, and it’s wrong-headed, bad for Illinois and must be stopped. Utilities are meant to be a public good, but there’s nothing good about them undermining solar.”
Utility profits come mostly from capital investments in the electric system, like new central power plants or large transmission line projects. Rooftop solar energy challenges traditional utility profit models by putting the generation of power in the hands of consumers, and by reducing the need for large, centralized grid infrastructure and fossil fuel power plants.
The Future Energy Jobs Act gave rooftop solar customers full net metering benefits until solar generation reached 5% of utility peak demand. In October 2020, Ameren claimed it had reached the 5% solar threshold and would switch to smaller rebates. In December 2020 the state utility regulator showed Ameren’s calculations were wrong and ordered it to restore full net metering payments. The regulator and solar advocates calculated that Illinois is unlikely to reach the 5% solar level before 2023, but the utility continues pushing to replace net metering with lower payments as soon as possible.
"I think solar would be an advantage to the community - it's about saving money and preserving life and clean air. If you want to help the community, as Ameren has said so many times, then help me in the best possible way that I need to be helped,” said Mamie Cosey, East St Louis homeowner and parent leader with COFI/POWER-PAC who recently signed up for community solar through Illinois Solar for All. “If you're holding back and not supporting solar, that's defeating what you say you stand for, especially if you know that going solar is providing a cheaper rate. I believe that everyone's entitled to an equal opportunity to have solar. I'm happy I chose solar for myself and encourage others to. Solar is going to be the way of the world, so why not go that way now?”
“Rooftop solar is key to our clean energy future,” said Bronte Payne, Go Solar campaign director with Environment Illinois Research & Education Center. “We can’t let shortsightedness keep us tied to the energy sources of the past. Policymakers need to recognize and resist any attempts to undermine rooftop solar, and put in place strong policies to encourage its growth.”
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