Low-income solar program safe from budget woes, for now

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, April 2, 2018

Illinois consumers have paid nearly $300 million into a fund established in 2010 to support wind and solar development and help utilities comply with the state’s 25-percent-by-2025 renewable energy standard.

But almost $250 million of the Renewable Energy Resources Fund has been borrowed or “swept” by the Legislature over the past three years to help the cash-strapped state pay its bills.

Now, the Illinois Commerce Commission is on the verge of approving the first long-term renewable energy procurement plan under the state’s 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act (Energywire, Dec. 2, 2016). And the renewable energy fund is the source of much of the funding for a key part of the plan aimed at spurring solar development in low-income neighborhoods.

At least in the first year, the money is there. According to filings at the ICC, the $21.2 million in the renewable energy account is enough to cover the $20 million needed to fund the initial year of Illinois’ Solar for All program, according to the plandeveloped by the Illinois Power Agency. An additional $10 million would be recovered through utility rates.

Funding for future years of the program, however, would require some level of repayment by the Legislature as well as appropriation of the money.

Of the $248 million in renewable energy funds transferred to the state’s general fund since 2015, $98 million was swept by the Legislature and won’t be repaid.

But the Legislature is required to repay $150 million borrowed last summer as part of the state’s first budget bill in two years.

Kim Wasserman-Nieto, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said the group will be watching to ensure there’s sustained funding for Solar for All.

Funding is just is one of several aspects of the energy law that Wasserman-Nieto’s group and others continue working on to ensure the consumer, economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy development are realized by low-income and minority communities.

Advocates across the state were alarmed last summer by a Republican budget bill that called for sweeping funds from the renewable energy funds to help address Illinois budget woes.

In the end, the budget bill allowed $150 million from the fund to be borrowed for up to two years.

David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a utility watchdog group, said it’s an important distinction. Also notable are assurances from legislators, the state comptroller and governor’s office that the funds would be repaid.

While there can be no guarantees the money will be paid back given the seriousness of Illinois’ budget deficit, Solar for All and a separately funded job training program were key provisions of the new energy law, and Kolata believes every effort will be made to honor the commitment.

“We want to be vigilant, but we do expect the money to be put back,” he said.

Money in the renewable energy fund was paid in over the course of eight years by customers of alternative retail electric suppliers to help satisfy obligations under the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

With the passage of the new energy law, the compliance payments no longer go to the renewable energy fund but directly to the utilities, which procure renewable energy credits though the Illinois Power Agency. The funding mechanism was changed specifically to protect the money from being used for other reasons.

The ICC is expected to vote Tuesday on the long-term renewable energy procurement plan, including Solar for All.

The low-income program, as proposed, would provide incentive payments to spur development of rooftop solar, community solar, and solar projects on public and nonprofit facilities.