The Illinois Commerce Commission convened on Wednesday in Chicago for a pair of policy discussion panels on 2016’s Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) and its impact on renewable energy. The two panels, which drew a packed hearing room, first concentrating on the status of the immediate impact of FEJA’s changes to the renewable energy market in Illinois, and then second on how technology will improve renewable energy adoption in Illinois.

Panel 1: Illinois’ Current Renewable Energy Reading & FEJA’s Renewable Objectives

Links to Presentations

While each of the presenters focused on a different component of renewable energy policy, all noted the policy and technical challenges that will come with the increase of distributed generation as rooftop solar and campus/microgrid-scale battery use increases.

Becky Stanfield from Western States noted that while Illinois was ranked 37th among states for solar installation, it is a national leader in wind generation, at 6th place with 4 gigawatts of generation, 5.5% of total generation capacity in Illinois. By 2030, she projected 3 gigawatts of new solar would be installed along with 1.3 gigawatts of new wind production.

Following the presentations, the first panel had more than 45 minutes for questions and answers, including a first: Accepting questions from the audience by Twitter.

Commissioner John Rosales asked the first panel: “How do you see community solar working?” referencing a provision in FEJA that allows shares of solar panel output to be sold directly to consumers.

MeLena Hessel from ELPC replied that other states implement community solar programs and that Illinois merely needs to choose an existing model and improve upon it.

“Who would regulate those companies?” asked Rosales.

Anthony Star, from IPA responded, “Under the law, IPA will propose terms and conditions to ICC for approval,” but the study to develop  a process, “is still in its infancy,” he said, with much more work to do before something is proposed.

Both Hessel and Stanfield jumped in to point out that ICC will need to ensure consumer protection controls, since the solar energy product will be marketed to retail consumers. “The last thing a developer wants is a disgruntled customer. If you don’t have standard consumer protections, that can’t help the process,” said Stanfield.

“When you talk about consumer protection, what role do you see for the commission to ensure predators are stopped and education has an effect?” asked Comm. Miguel DelValle. “On the [electricity] choice side we don’t see that, because there’s still a lot of marketing problems out there.”

The panel provided unclear answers, “Hopefully we’ll see some overlap for consumer protections between consumer protection for choice and community solar,” said Hessel.

Comm. Sherina Maye Edwards then asked, “What in FEJA points to success [with renewables]?”

Andrew Barbeau from Accelerate replied, “While FEJA is a great first step, we didn’t raise [Renewable Portfolio Standard] targets, the broader question is how do we have a diverse mix of generation. If we focus on putting the customer first, and not the generators, that’s a great start.”

Stanfield then said, “The two big unfinished pieces of business from FEJA is integrated system planning for the distribution system and batteries, how do we deploy batteries to serve all the things we’ll need?”

The Citizens Utility Board then asked the day’s only question by Twitter, “What policy change would you make from the status quo to advance Illinois’ energy goals?”

From Barbeau: “To determine a way to value distributed generation, and how to accommodate the load, since we didn’t tackle load planning and batteries.”

Hessel: “We’ve been talking about transmission, but you don’t see that in FEJA, how to incorporate that into our policy.”

Stanfield: “Also electric vehicles are part of the system and we need to have a strategy for that.”

Star: “We seem to write our legislation every 10 years. How quickly will things happen…10 years might be too long.”

A question from the moderator: Are there any factors that make land attractive for solar?

Hessel: “Proximity to the substation. After that, it’s being flat, not shaded. For brownfields, depending on the contamination, the real advantage for brownfields is that you don’t have to dig into the ground for solar, you can use ballast.”

Star: “On the non-brownfield solar, a large portion of the area of the state is territory of rural electric coops. For people looking for sites, anecdotally we’re hearing confusion, wondering if the land is in a rural coop or a utility. Coops are not regulated by the state.”

Panel 2: Integration of Renewables in Illinois, a 3D View:
 Distribution & Transmission, Development of Technology, & Deference

Links to Presentations

The second panel concentrated more on the technologies necessary to implement FEJA’s renewables components and the related regulation challenges. James Gignac from the Illinois Attorney General’s office set the tone by pointing out that the cost of wind electricity production dropped by 36% in 2016 and that, “Fossil [electricity production] is being retired much faster than renewables are being added.”

“Flat demand for electricity and low cost of gas has created an oversupply, dropping prices. The market is signaling through low prices that less efficient generation should exit the market. The effect of renewables [being added] is secondary,” to the creation of demand for renewables, Gignac said.

Comm. Rosales asked, “Is there a way with energy storage that there would be an opportunity for there just to be an [Independent System Operator] or [Regional Transmission Organization] to streamline the renewables [delivery], since there would be energy storage?”

Matthew Tomc from Ameren jumped in, “That’s where we see the rapid change in technology. Once you have storage at a utility-scale level, which is where you can address renewables, which struggles with intermittence. How can you use that technology to meet customer needs. You could see storage at the utility, local and customer level.” Then, he added, “The commission’s mission is to look after consumers to make sure services are reliably delivered.”

Gignac countered, “We don’t have to wait for large scale deployment of batteries to see an increased amount of wind and solar on the grid. Forecasting, improvement of data analytics, demand flexibility, all those things work towards making renewables grow.”

Amy Francetic, whose company backs startups in energy data analytics, then said, “What is unique in battery storage, is you don’t have to ramp them up or down, you just turn them on. Once you have that system available to respond to demand, you can use it for backup, but also demand response to shave the prices off your energy bill. For a building, campus or microgrid, they can reduce the overall energy bills for the day.”

Comm. Rosales then added, “Is it more expedient to [serve] that baseload [demand] with gas, based on what the price will be? The cheapest power is produced at scale in rural areas. The production of rural wind and solar is cheaper than rooftop solar. Because the siting and installation costs are spread out. The challenge is delivering it to the demand centers, That’s why you see it so big in Texas and Oklahoma. Critical to renewables will be investment in long-haul transmission to bring it to where it is needed.”

Chairman Brien Sheahan directed the final question to Gignac from the A.G.’s Office. “What are your thoughts on investment in the cost of the distribution network in facilitating the integration [of renewables]?”

Gignac said, “The traditional generation we have now, we have costs we’re paying in to ensure reliability of those resources. That’s why we pay for spinning reserves or reserve margins when a big unit comes off line. As we integrate and shift generation [to renewables] we’ll have new costs on distribution, like on grid regions. That will be a shift from what we’re already paying for large centralized power plants.”