S. Side solar energy plant to power 1,500 homes

December 1, 2009 4:34:16 AM PST
Chicago is home to the largest big-city solar generating plant in the country.The Exelon plant is being built on the South Side. It won't produce a lot of electricity. But the company says solar energy is an important part of its plans for the future.

In an old far South Side industrial site, barren for years, 33,000 solar panels are being set up to follow the arc of the sun, and make electricity.

When it's fully operational early next year, the solar farm in the city will produce enough electricity to power 1,500 homes. That's a tiny drop in the bucket in the overall scheme of things, but Exelon believes, an important drop.

"Whether you're on the climate change bandwagon or not, it's real and we have to find ways for energy independence and energy security to bring alternate energy sources to the market," said Thomas O'Neill, Exelon.

The question is will the market warm to solar. The cost of these panels is very high, though they have dropped considerably.

The panels would not be here were in not for federal stimulus money, energy and other tax credits that are financing about three-fourths of this project's $62 million cost. And Exelon concedes it's a gamble as to whether this project will ultimately become a money-maker.

"There's considerable doubt, but there's also considerable optimism because this demonstrates that a company like ours can bring renewable energy and it's consistent with our environmental goals," said O'Neill.

"We're at the very early stages of solar power making a big difference in the United States," said Howard Learner, Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Learner says there are half-a-dozen additional solar power farms in planning and development for greater Chicago. They could transform old brownfield sites into solar power generators.

Part of the driving force behind this is new Illinois law requiring that by the year 2025, one-fourth of our energy must come from renewable sources, and solar is a part of that.

"That translates to about 700 to 750-megawats of solar power and that could make Illinois a leader in our country," said Learner.

"It's a gamble on renewable energy credits and it's a gamble on the future of energy in America, and we're willing to take that for what we have here and we'll see where it goes as to whether we put more of these in the ground," said O'Neill.

Solar accounts for one tenth of one percent of the power we generate nationally. So it has a very small, but growing place at the table. How much it grows is dependent on price and national energy policy. Exelon says it'll know maybe as early as five years from now whether its new South Side solar operation will make money.


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