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Solar Advocates Irked By Rollback of Key Energy Credit

Until last week, Ameren Illinois credited solar panel users at night for delivering excess energy generated by sunshine. But a new policy removes a credit for that delivery, a move that advocates say harms the nascent industry.

Ameren Illinois said the "net metering" change for Illinoisans who overproduce energy with solar panels installed at their homes, businesses, or nonprofits was triggered when the state reached a 5% threshold of a utility's total peak demand--as dictated by the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act.

Advocates say rolling back the delivery credits hampers the ability of solar customers to reap the full cost savings benefits of switching to clean energy.

"It didn't matter if you were in construction. It didn't matter if you had an interconnection agreement with Ameren already in place," said Kiersten Sheets, a solar contractor at Ruyle Mechanical in Peoria. "They simply retroactively implemented this policy and have harmed all of us."

Sheets said she had to inform a customer on Monday that the value of installing solar panels is reduced due to the change. She said customers in the engineering or permitting phases of solar panel installation are also hitting pause on the process in the wake of the policy change.

But Tucker Kennedy, an Ameren Illinois spokesman, said the energy company is simply following the law. He said the process used to determine when the 5% solar threshold is reached was approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), a regulatory authority, in August 2017. That threshold was reached in October of this year, he said.

Kennedy said net metering remains for the supply portion of solar energy for new installations. He said the credits were "net neutral" for Ameren Illinois, but now that solar energy is more widespread, the delivery credits are removed under the law to protect other customers from cost shifts.

"There's a reason why this law includes safeguards for those who don't have the luxury of installing expensive solar equipment," Kennedy said. "And typically those are people who are in more low-income or disadvantaged areas."

Kristin Jacobson Flex is an environmental science professor at Illinois Central College. Her family took advantage of federal and state tax credits to defray two-thirds of the $18,000 cost of 16 solar panels for their Washington home in 2018. She said she saves about $100 a month on Ameren bills since installing the panels, which she said will pay themselves off years earlier than originally anticipated.

"I could not have done that without the net metering," Flex said. "Net metering is essential for this."

The Rev. Tony Pierce of Heaven's View Christian Fellowship in Peoria said rolling back the credits jeopardizes employment for local Black and Brown people who have undergone workforce training for specialized jobs in the solar industry.

"Just like we need a ladder to get the roof to install solar panels, we also need the financing ladder of net metering," said Pierce, who also is the board chair of Illinois People's Action. "If Ameren gets their way, it will only be another example of a broken promise and hope deferred."

The energy advocates said the methodology for the new distributed generation rebate replacing net metering for solar energy delivery doesn't offer the same amount of compensation to solar panel owners for energy produced.

For instance, Sheets said the nonprofit ART, Inc., which recently installed 286 solar panels on the roof of the century-old Greeley School in Peoria's North Valley neighborhood as part of the $8.6 million E.D. Edwards Clean Air Act lawsuit settlement, saw its estimated annual energy savings from solar sink from $8,000 to $6,000 a year after the delivery credit change.

Environmental advocates also say they question whether Ameren's service area has actually hit the 5% cap. On Friday, the ICC granted, in part, an emergency motion by the solar groups to keep full net metering intact until an audit of solar energy's penetration in Ameren Illinois' service area is completed.

“Ending net metering without the rebate in place could have a chilling effect on solar sales at a time when the state is working to further decarbonize the grid and increase renewables. This could also lead to layoffs in the solar industry at a time when the state is still recovering from an economic downturn,” Illinois Commerce Commission Board Chairman Carrie Zalewski said in a statement.

For Ameren Illinois' part, Kennedy said the energy company is supportive of clean energy and amenable to talking it out.

"We're interested in working with all the stakeholders and parties that will enable all of our customers to continue to get the value of the solar that they produce and put out onto the grid," Kennedy said. "But we don't want to do that on the backs of low-income customers. We just don't think that's fair."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.