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City's First "Community Solar Gardens" May Be On Their Way

A community solar project — where a group of neighbors or a neighborhood group would be able to lease small parts of a larger solar power project and collectively benefit from sustainable energy — may be on its way to Chicago, according to Claire Tramm of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT), a public-private group formed by the Mayor. The organization is beginning to apply for grants to support solar initiatives to help make them more cost-efficient. Normally, the CIT helps larger organizations, such as museums, install solar panels since they have the massive roofs necessary to support a sizable installation. But with plans to sponsor a community solar project this year, the CIT may be opening up this type of sustainable power generation to families, smaller organizations, even individuals in apartment buildings.

Due to Illinois' climate and dearth of sunlight during much of the year, organizations usually require additional funding and grants, such as those provided by the Illinois Power Authority, to make solar power projects cost-effective. The CIT helps make these projects possible by helping with the application process, providing tax-exempt debt and pooling together different projects to provide economies of scale, according to Tramm. With community solar, the CIT is opening the doors to new owners.

"Local residents may not have the appropriate roof space to make this happen on their own, so we're trying to get them access to a local plot of land or rooftop where they can own or lease solar panels separate from their own roof." she says. The CIT received applications for local community solar projects last week, and over the next few months, will coordinate with applicants to figure out viable projects and apply for grant funding.

Dozens of community solar projects are in development across the country, with talks to bring this type of power generation to Minnesota underway, and 11 of 25 approved projects underway in Colorado. This would be the first time a project like this would happen in Illinois.

A similar community solar project is in the works for Waukegan, proposed last August by NRG, one of the nation's largest independent energy producers. The company would invest $3 million to build solar cells of the roofs of many school buildings in Waukegan and maintain the system for 20 years, while the school reaps the benefits of renewable energy. According to an NRG spokesman, the company has the mayor and city alderman's support and is still working with the school district to make it happen.

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