Illinois rural electric co-op customers seek clarity, consistency from ‘Solar Bill of Rights’

Illinois rural electric co-op customers seek clarity, consistency from ‘Solar Bill of Rights’

An Illinois bill that started as a protection for solar-powered doorbells has developed into comprehensive proposed legislation to break down the barriers confronting rural electric cooperative members seeking to install solar. 

Many residents and solar developers say the measure is sorely needed, since electric cooperative members often face arbitrary and changing interconnection, compensation and liability policies from the cooperatives. 

Illinois HB5315, called a “Solar Bill of Rights” and introduced Feb. 29, would require the state’s more than 50 cooperatives and municipal utilities to allow net metering until a certain threshold of solar penetration is met, and develop “shared policy” on solar that must be approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The bill would prohibit problematic requirements often reported by electric cooperative members, including complicated insurance requirements, lengthy interconnection processes and restrictions on system size, solar leases and power purchase agreements. People with solar would also continue under the same billing terms for 25 years after installing systems. 

“Customers of municipal electric utility systems and rural electric cooperatives often do not have the same opportunities as customers of investor-owned utilities” to get solar, says the bill. 

Scott Allen, renewable energy policy coordinator for the Citizens Utility Board, said the organization tends to get more calls about solar problems from electric cooperative members than customers of the two investor-owned-utilities that serve the majority of the state’s population.  

“Members aren’t satisfied with their rates of compensation, the cost of engineering studies, and the fact that policies can change with little or no notice,” Allen said. “Many people invest in solar, and sign net metering agreements with a pretty good idea of how long it will take to recover their costs, then the policy changes, and their financial outlook changes dramatically. Members don’t have a clear understanding of how, or to whom they address their concerns. Often, the rules about addressing the [electric cooperative] board are unclear, and in some cases, it can take months to get a few minutes on the agenda.”

The 2021 Climate & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) required electric cooperatives to interconnect rooftop solar installations, but the cooperatives still institute size limits, requirements for expensive liability insurance and other barriers, critics say.

Electric cooperatives and municipal utilities are not regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission in the same way it oversees investor-owned utilities ComEd and Ameren. The cooperatives were started as ways for rural residents to run their own electric systems democratically. But critics say the boards that administer the cooperatives often lack meaningful public input procedures, and have not made adequate efforts to embrace the clean energy economy. Proponents of cooperatives and municipal utilities meanwhile note that they offer citizens more direct control, at least theoretically, than investor-owned utilities, without a profit motive.

Allen emphasized the bill “is not about removing local control from any units of local government, it’s about making sure consumers are protected.” 

“We’re trying to adopt a universal or semi universal standard for everybody across the state, where we have 30-plus municipal utilities, 25-26 distribution cooperatives, and they each have different policies, different ways they compensate their customers, and these policies can change whenever the board or city council wants to make that change,” he said. “It’s caused a lot of problems for individuals who got their system sized and financed based on one set of information, and the next year that information changes.”

The Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives did not respond to requests for comment. Especially given potential pushback from electric cooperative interests, the bill may be unlikely to pass during the legislative session that ends May 24, in which case it would likely be reintroduced next year. 

A ‘muddy’ situation 

After Meredith Barnes and her husband purchased a home and started a lavender farm in central Illinois, they hoped to install solar. The Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative closed its net metering program in July 2020 after solar reached 5% of its load, with 250 households out of about 13,500 having solar. So Barnes and her husband — who installed their array last year — receive only a low flat rate known as “excess electricity value” for power they send back to the grid.

Barnes noted that the flat rate is set annually, so households with solar don’t benefit if electricity prices rise, theoretically making solar more valuable. And the rate is much lower than the retail rate that cooperative members with net metering would get.

The bill would allow cooperatives to cap net metering at a set threshold, but the Illinois Commerce Commission would approve a “fair value of solar” that cooperatives and municipal utilities would be expected to offer through other billing structures. 

“The equitable value of solar is definitely not what they’re paying us,” Barnes said. “They say [the flat rate] will go up, but when?  There should be a minimum standard [paid for solar] across the state.”

Barnes said she’s had difficulty communicating with cooperative board members and understanding how the flat rate is set. Such lack of transparency is a common complaint among electric cooperatives, consumer and solar advocates say.

“The flat rate is very muddy. It’s just weird,” Barnes said. “The cooperative doesn’t like when you try to talk to them about it.”

The Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative did not respond to a request for comment.

Barnes tries to use as much of the electricity from her array as possible. “Since I have a farm and work from home, I can do laundry during the day, I can run the dishwasher during the day,” she said. “For someone who works at an office from 8 to 5, that’s not possible.” 

Buying a battery to store their own energy was too expensive, she added.

“What we did is bought an electric vehicle and we only charge it when it’s sunny. It’s like our battery, I’m not sending as much back to the grid because I’m going to store it in my vehicle.” 

The Solar Bill of Rights legislation does not address net metering or other policies for the state’s two investor-owned utilities, ComEd and Ameren, whose rates are determined in proceedings before the Illinois Commerce Commission. These utilities will end net metering in 2025, replacing it with a rebate for solar systems.

“We don’t want to compare investor-owned utilities to cooperatives,” said Allen. “There is an argument to be made that Ameren and ComEd have quite a bit more solar installed in their territories, they’ve kind of reached a decent threshold, whereas municipal utilities and cooperatives are lagging behind.” 

Humble beginnings

When state Rep. Daniel Didech (D-59) and supporters began drafting the bill, it was meant to make sure that municipalities and counties couldn’t ban small solar collectors on the fronts of homes meant to power smart doorbells or other appliances. That language, still in the bill, expanded to ensure that these government bodies can’t ban solar arrays more generally. (The bill does not apply to shared roofs or buildings over 60 feet tall.) 

A state law already bans homeowners associations from restricting solar for aesthetic or other reasons. But some Illinoisans still face restrictions from local government agencies. That was the case in the Chicago suburb of Sugar Grove until a village board meeting on April 16. There, board members overturned a ban on solar on front-facing rooftops, thanks to an energetic campaign by homeowners Becky Brocker and Mike Rayburn. 

Advocates and solar developers say municipal restrictions like Sugar Grove had are actually rare. The only other well-known case is Kildeer, Illinois, which removed a total ban on solar in February and still prohibits front-facing arrays. But, advocates said, it’s still important to codify the right to solar statewide, especially as official opposition may arise more frequently as more and more people install solar. 

“When [Didech] expanded the bill, he was thinking ahead that these sorts of covenants exist in places we don’t know about yet, just trying to get out ahead of any units of local government that might catch on to, ‘Hey, we can restrict solar for whatever reason we want to,’” said Allen.

John Delurey, deputy program director of the organization Vote Solar, noted that more than 75,000 small solar arrays have been installed statewide since the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act created incentives. But preventing any future barriers to solar, and smoothing the way in electric cooperative territory, is crucial to make sure that growth continues, he said.

“In rural areas, counties may be the bodies with jurisdiction. I’m sure there are still people in Illinois having trouble because one person on a zoning committee doesn’t like solar,” said Delurey. “It drains everybody’s resources to roam around and play whack-a-mole with all these different rules.”

Illinois rural electric co-op customers seek clarity, consistency from ‘Solar Bill of Rights’ is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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