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Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 05:13 am

Let the sunshine in

Environmental groups say Illinois has untapped solar energy potential

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Making an investment in solar power could create up to 17,000 jobs, environmental groups say. Currently, the state has 3.3 megawatts of installed solar energy, but the Illinois Environmental Council says the state could generae as much solar energy as Ger

Investing in solar energy could bring the state as many as 17,000 new jobs, one environmental expert says.

As the fifth largest producer and consumer of electricity, Illinois is not living up to its sun-harnessing potential. The state is seriously behind on solar energy, the Illinois Environmental Council says, especially when compared to other large states.

“We have solar development on both coasts, but the Midwest, in many ways, is lagging behind,” says Barry Matchett, a legislative director at the Illinois Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Calculations from national energy labs reveal that increasing the number of solar power producers statewide would bring thousands of jobs to Illinois, Matchett says.

“We’ve used job calculators from a variety of industries,” he says. “These are not numbers we just conjured up out of our heads.”

According to the group’s 2010 environmental policy agenda, Illinois had only 3.3 megawatts of installed solar power capacity statewide, which is less than the power generated by each of 27 different cities across California. Illinois also has greater solar intensity than Germany or Japan, two of the global leaders in solar energy production, the agenda says.

Lawmakers and environmental groups gathered last week to unveil an environmental policy agenda that urges the state to embrace solar energy, among other green initiatives. The agenda emphasizes three renewable energy bills designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Rep. Bill Burns (D-Chicago), a member of the General Assembly’s green caucus, emphasized the importance of linking job creation to green energy investments. Illinois must create incentives for factories that produce solar panels and wind turbines, he says, which will create new jobs and move the state away from a carbon-based economy.

“That’s good for Illinois, that’s good for our future, and that’s good for the future of industry in our state,” Burns says.

Matchett says he’s hoping to “ramp up” solar energy in Illinois, including a proposed renewable energy standard dictating that the state must have 600 megawatts of solar energy by 2015 or earlier.

This requirement would mean more solar power manufacturers must come to the state, he says. Companies who make the panels, who install the panels and who oversee the administrative needs of solar energy could all provide jobs.

“There are many companies that do this type of work that don’t do business in Illinois today,” Matchett says. “The statute fixes that.”

Another bill, SB 3426, would make it easier for businesses, farms and homeowners to generate their own wind or solar power through the process of “net metering.” Net metering means the building generating the extra power would have their utility bill reduced in accordance with how much power they’ve created on their own. If the building generates enough wind or solar power to pay for an entire month of utilities, the company will credit their account for the following month.

Currently, only residences have net metering, but Matchett says the goal is to expand it to commercial and industrial power users. As of now, some farms don’t count as private residences due to their size, he says.

Large warehouse-style stores like Home Depot or Wal-Mart Stores Inc. would also benefit from new net metering laws, Matchett says, as their big, flat roofs would be great for solar panels.

“Suddenly, these businesses would have an economic benefit attached to solar energy installation,” he says.

Solar energy systems can be costly up front, Matchett says, and SB 2505 would alleviate some up-front expenses by creating a financing program based on local property taxes. The bill would establish “green energy special service areas,” which would be eligible for additional energy efficiency or energy improvement funding from their cities or municipalities.

“We view this as a way to remove the real world barriers that people face when putting in a renewable energy system,” Matchett says.

Charles Jackson, executive director of the Council, says he believes solar energy can help the state’s financial recovery.

“Throughout this recession, we have tremendous opportunities to not just make adequate laws a little bit better, but to really push the boundaries and lead in the nation,” he says.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com

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