Illinois just gave $1.6 million to 'justice-focused' community solar projects

Solar panels on a shed with a blue sky behind them

Thanks to a new infusion of state funding, three projects benefiting traditionally under-resourced Black, Brown and Indigenous communities in the greater Chicago area have taken one important step closer to fruition.

In April, the Illinois Climate Bank unanimously passed a resolution to authorize loan funds of up to $1.6 million for three community-based solar projects owned by Green Energy Justice Cooperative, launched in 2022 by Blacks in Green (BIG).

This increases the total funding to $2.9 million for GEJC’s community solar projects, a portion of which is privately funded.

The money will be devoted to the pre-development phase of the project, including public outreach, an interconnection study, and a deposit for renewable energy credits awarded through the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), said Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green.

“Our $2.9 million in predevelopment costs include payments to our electric utility, ComEd — fees to connect our solar system to their grid and a 5% down payment for our renewable energy credits — like buying a house, you have the financing and the down payment,” Davis said.

“The sweet spot of this pre-development funding is what we invest in building relationships, educating them about the power of cooperative ownership and management, and collaborating with them to build a clean energy economy right where they live,” she said. “We’ve got two years before we flip the switch and start monthly savings and clean energy comfort… and between now and then we’ll be enrolling thousands of community subscribers in conversations for organizing, training and hopefully inspiring them.”

Solar panels on a shed with a blue sky behind them
(Pieter Morlion/Flickr)

“A community stake in clean energy”

Energy self-sufficiency is one of the eight key principles of BIG’s Sustainable Square Mile concept, which the organization aims to replicate around the country.

“We say communities should own, develop, and manage their land and energy, and with our $10 million EPA Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center (TCTAC) award, BIG is offering free/open source access to our energy justice portfolio, which includes this 9 MW solar project and community geothermal and wind,” said Davis in a news release.

“With our energy affordability bill before the Illinois General Assembly, and our energy auditing workforce launching this summer, we aim to connect the dots of community-driven, community-scale energy solutions for low and moderate-income communities across America.”

In December 2023, the Illinois Power Agency recommended awarding the three solar projects, valued at $25.7 million, with $12.5 million in renewable energy credits. The three projects, located in Aurora, Naperville, and Romeoville, Illinois, would each generate 3 megawatts. Once completed, they will provide the dual benefit of lowering the disproportionate energy burden in BIPOC and low-income households, while providing a community stake in clean energy generation.

“When this project is completed over the next couple of years, it will be the largest non-governmental, non-utility, minority-community-owned solar project in Illinois. And as such, it will be the fulfillment of years of dreams and work by our Green Energy Justice Cooperative, to share middle-class jobs and wealth-building with historically deprived and distressed individuals and families throughout this area.” said Rev. Tony Pierce, GEJC board member and CEO of Sun Bright Energy, in a news release.

“In doing so, it will be the beginning of lifting these kinds of individuals and families from the bottom of our economic pyramid into the middle class,” Pierce said. “And it will therefore be the beginning of bringing some closure to the Black and White wealth gap that exists in metro Chicago; in addition to reducing the carbon footprint in our area, to reduce climate change.”

For Davis, this level of recognition and financial support reflects more than a decade of advocacy and effort to ensure energy independence for her community of West Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side — and beyond.

“The cooperative (GEJC) that we organized and funded fits in with our overall mission because we have, as a stated pillar of our work [intend] to increase the rate at which neighbor-owned businesses are created and sustained,” Davis told the Energy News Network in December.

“We understand that the number one employer of Black folks in America is Black folks in America. And we are very committed in our understanding of the whole-system problem common to Black communities everywhere, that we are committed to being a solution.”

This article was originally published by The Energy News Network. and was reshared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 DEED license.

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