SPRINGFIELD — Clean energy advocates are crying foul after Ameren Illinois ended its solar credit program for new solar customers earlier this month, even after state regulators urged the company to hold off.
Ameren claims it’s reached the threshold laid out in a 2016 law allowing it to end its “retail net metering” program for new solar customers. That net metering allowed customers — who paid upfront for solar panel installation on their homes or small businesses — to earn back more money over time by selling the unused solar power generated on their roofs back to Ameren.
But advocates for clean energy are suspicious of Ameren’s math, and say the company’s sudden announcement to end the solar credits beginning Oct. 1 is unfair to those in the process of installing solar panels on their homes and businesses, in addition to causing potential long-term harm to Illinois’ budding solar industry.
The Illinois Commerce Commission earlier this month urged Ameren to not halt the program after an emergency hearing on the matter in late September. The ICC said Ameren must first submit to an audit into the math it used to determine it had reached 5 percent of Illinois energy generation through solar — the threshold that allows the company to end the solar credit program.
But Ameren refused. In a letter to the ICC on Oct. 2, the company emphasized that it believed complying with commission’s order was voluntary, and that it would be ignoring the order and ending the solar credit program for new customers.
“Ameren Illinois has determined that it cannot undertake what the Commission urges, as to do so would require Ameren Illinois to disregard its tariffs and so violate the [2016 Future Energy Jobs Act],” Ameren wrote.
In a statement, Ameren also accused “special interests” of pressuring the ICC into shutting down the pathway by which Ameren can end new solar credits by reaching the 5-percent solar threshold. Ameren President and Chairman Richard Mark said it was “an issue of customer fairness” in the company’s statement.
“We are very supportive of our customers and renewable energy,” Mark said. “While many of these special interests are making erroneous claims about the law, they were also part of the negotiations of the law in 2016 and were party to subsequent regulatory proceedings filed by Ameren Illinois and approved by the ICC.”
John Delurey, the Midwest Director of advocacy group VoteSolar, disagreed, saying Ameren’s move actually “creates tremendous instability and uncertainty” in central and southern Illinois.
Net metering incentivized Ameren customers to install solar panels on their homes, Delurey said, as the unused solar power generated on their roofs and bought by Ameren in the form of bill credits shrank the length of time it might take for a customer to recoup their investments. Delurey said that net metering averaged that time to seven or fewer years under net metering, and an average of 11 to 13 years without it.
“That [differential] can make all the difference in the world to a family trying to do good by the planet but make financial sense,” Delurey said.
Rev. Tony Pierce oversaw one recent solar project in central Illinois. Pierce, the pastor at Heaven’s View Christian Fellowship in Peoria, installed solar panels on the roof of his church. But at a news conference in Peoria last week, Pierce referred to net metering as a “financial ladder.”
“But Ameren wants to pull that ladder out from under us,” Pierce said. “If Ameren gets their way, it will only be another example of a broken promise and hope deferred.”
Pierce, who also serves as president of activist organization Illinois People’s Action, said he’s worried Ameren’s move will have downstream effects for job trainees in the solar industry. Pierce said he had hoped the burgeoning industry would be a boon for people of color whose service jobs have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying recession.
“Training people is an implied promise,” Pierce said. “The promise is that the work will be there.”
Solar energy equipment suppliers, installers and project managers are also caught in a bind, according to Michelle Knox, the founder of Springfield-based WindSolarUSA Inc. Knox said the uncertainty caused by the fight between Ameren and solar advocates creates confusion for communicating with potential solar customers.
“It is Ameren manipulating the legislation to their advantage to try to move backwards [on net metering],” Knox said. “And the effect of all of this is going to be negative for businesses in Illinois and Ameren customers.”
Both Knox and Delurey both said the uncertainty would end once the General Assembly passes comprehensive energy legislation that’s been debated in Springfield for nearly the past two years. Competing proposals have merged and evolved since being introduced in 2019, but solar advocates say whatever eventually gets signed into law must include more funding to subsidize startup costs for solar, in order to incentivize more solar energy production in Illinois.
But for now, Delurey says Illinois must continue to live under the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, which created the 5-percent threshold allowing Ameren to end its solar credit program for new customers. But that’s only if Ameren’s math is correct, and Delurey doubts it is.
“FEJA wasn’t supposed to be a permanent fix,” Delurey said. “But we need a replacement mechanism for a way of compensating solar customers before we get rid of net metering.”