The expansion of community solar systems across the United States serves as a means to reduce the overall output of carbon emissions. This planet-saving alternative to fossil fuels has seen a rise along the East Coast, with states like New York spearheading the movement toward sustainable energy. As more and more cities around the nation latch onto the concept of community solar, the total production of carbon is drastically reduced. It’s this environmentally sound concept that drove the Illinois City of Effingham to consider developing a 20-acre community solar array.
A first for the town of just over 13,000 people, the development is being eyed for the southern part of town. At its current planned size, the development team behind the project, Trajectory Energy Partners of Chicago and CEFS. Economic Opportunity Corporation believes that approximately 400 homes in Effingham and the surrounding region will benefit from the community solar array. The partnership devised the plan together and will work through the overall development, which includes breaking through the first roadblock.
According to current regulations in Effingham, the city does not allow for the development of “large solar energy systems” or any solar installation that is ground-mounted. Unfortunately, a typical community solar array is ground-mounted and is considered large. This leaves only small, roof-mounted installations, which are typically designed for private residences or small businesses. However, the city is behind the idea of a community solar array, meaning it may approach its current regulations with the intent of making them less severe.
As Trajectory managing partner Jon Carson explains, community solar systems are traditionally designed to help low-income households. They are a cheaper alternative to private installations, which also come with the requirement to maintain and upkeep them regularly. Unlike rooftop solar panels, a community solar array is built off-site on a designated plot of land and filters energy into the local grid. Carson explains how homeowners and even renters/tenants subscribe to a unit of energy from the installation and receive a portion of the clean, renewable power that’s generated at the site.
To accommodate the planned 20-acre community solar array, the Effingham Plan Commission is reviewing policies to consider a change. The current ban was initiated in 2017 and did not reflect the current need for clean energy options. By removing the ban, companies the Trajectory could move forward with a development plan, though it would still need to verify the zoning of the land and receive approval from the Board of Public Utilities. There is also the possibility that the public will speak out against the planned community solar array, forcing the city’s hand to prevent the installation from being built.
After the regulations are reviewed, the commission may plan to introduce new regulations that include Trajectory and CEFS receiving approval directly from the city. The planned development will also need to adhere to all local building codes. To further delay the construction of the development, an environmental impact study is required with consultation from a local state agency. The list of requirements continues to ensure the plan meets local standards and doesn’t pose a risk to the community or environment.
The new policy suggestions were presented at the Plan Commission’s April 13 meeting. To take time to review the benefits the regulations could have for the city, the commission opted to take no action. A follow-up meeting was scheduled for May 11, where it will revisit the proposed regulatory changes.
The site of the planned facility is part of a 154-acre plot that the City of Effingham purchased earlier in 2021. The city paid $18,000 an acre to secure the land as part of an “economic development program.” If the facility receives approval, Trajectory and CEFS’s community solar array will wind up being the first project to use the parcel. Located in South Effingham, the plot is near the railroad tracks, set back from the road enough to prevent being an eyesore to locals and passersby.
Should Trajectory and CEFS have the opportunity to move forward with the project, they will need to turn to Illinois Solar for All for funding. The Illinois-based grant program, CEFS. CEO Kevin Bushur explains, is competitive and not easy to secure. Busher explains that only a handful of grants are awarded annually. However, Trajectory has a track record of receiving similar grants through the same program. Should the grant be awarded and the regulations approved, the community solar array could begin development in 2023.
The partnership involves Trajectory Energy Partners building the physical location while CEFS will be in control of the program itself. CEFS will help in securing subscribers who will be from low-income and underserved communities throughout Effingham. According to Bushur, the community solar array is crucial for the area.
Though this may be the first community solar array for Effingham, multiple towns and cities throughout Illinois have participated in community solar before. A 7,000-panel, 2.7-megawatt development was cleared for construction in Olney. This project, managed by Nexamp, will service several hundred households over the life of its operations.
With the approval and completion of the community solar array, CEFS and Trajectory Energy Partners are on the path to provide clean energy to low-income households. Once all roadblocks are overcome, the partnership expects to move fast to start securing subscribers as soon as possible.