EFFINGHAM — The City of Effingham is considering a plan for a 20-acre community solar installation south of town. The project would provide 400 low-income families with subsidized electricity, cutting energy bills by as much as 50%.
Still in its early stages, the development is a partnership between the city, CEFS and the private solar development firm Trajectory Energy Partners of Chicago.
The first roadblock for the development is the city’s own policy. Effingham currently bans all “large solar energy systems” and “ground mounted solar energy systems,” effectively restricting solar systems to be small, roof-mounted systems designed for one home or building.
“If you were to put solar on your home, that would be a ‘behind-the-meter system,’” explains Trajectory Energy Partners Managing Partner Jon Carson.
The city is looking to develop a community solar system.
“These projects are for people who want to be connected to solar, but can’t,” says Carson. This includes low-income people who can’t afford the capital costs of rooftop panels or people who don’t own their own homes, such as apartment renters. They would subscribe to the program and receive some of the output of the system, similar to how they would receive output from any other energy plant.
The Effingham Plan Commission is currently considering the policy change, which would allow for this kind of project. The policy would repeal a 2017 ban on large and ground-mounted systems and offer a variety of regulations.
These regulations include requiring city approval for any new system, conforming to industry and legal building codes, and requiring an environmental impact study in consultation with various state agencies, among other things.
“We looked at other communities’ large solar policies,” said City Administrator Steve Miller. “We took what we thought were the better parts.”
The policy was also reviewed by Trajectory Energy Partners prior to being presented to the Plan Commission.
After being presented the policy at its April 13 meeting, the Plan Commission chose to take no action on it in order to consider the benefits of the policy to the city. It will come back for consideration at its May 11 meeting, which is open to the public and available to watch live on the city’s website.
The property being considered is part of the Hawickhorst property, a 154-acre tract of land purchased by the city this year for $2.7 million or $18,000 an acre. The city purchased it using bonded money as part of its economic development program. This would be the first project using that land.
“The property we’re looking at is near the railroad tracks. It is off of the road by some distance,” said Miller.
Beyond city approval, the project requires money from Illinois Solar for All, a statewide grant program.
“It’s very competitive,” said CEFS CEO Kevin Bushur, adding the program only awards two or three grants per year.
Trajectory Energy Partners has been awarded several similar grants through the program in the past.
The Illinois Solar for All grant will have an application cycle in late summer. Miller estimates that if they get the grant, the project could be off the ground in 2023.
CEFS would administer the program after Trajectory Energy Partners built the installation, helping eligible low-income people sign up to participate and receive the financial benefits of solar energy.
Bushur said the people who need this program the most are excited about the opportunity.
“A couple of years ago we received a grant from Illinois Solar for All for grassroots education,” said Bushur. “We found out we had a lot of low-income people in our seven-county area who are excited about solar.”
A few dozen similar projects have been developed around the state, including one in Olney being built by Nexamp. That project will have 7,000 solar panels and produce 2.7 megawatts of clean energy, enough for several hundred homes, according to material provided by Nexamp.