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Elevating Solar, Cutting Energy Costs in Illinois


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Installers work on a rooftop solar project in Illinois. Photo courtesy Elevate Energy.

By Karla Mendoza

Debra and Greg Earl are owners of one of the first single-family homes on the South Side of Chicago to receive a rooftop solar installation through the Illinois Solar for All (ILSFA) program. The Earls were guaranteed at least 50 percent savings on their energy supply costs with no upfront costs. In a recent article, Ms. Earl told the Energy News Network of her delight in helping to protect the environment, while, at the same time, enjoying the added bonus of being protected from future energy cost increases. 

ILSFA was established by the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), passed with bipartisan support from Illinois lawmakers with the intent to create equitable access to inexpensive renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, as well as to provide financial support for two at-risk nuclear plants. Since going into effect, the legislation has brought investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, and energy innovation, with up to $750 million allocated to low-income programs. In addition to ensuring funding for renewables, FEJA has stimulated job creation and positioned Illinois as a leader in zero-carbon electricity. State residents and businesses also have benefited from low energy rates.

Elevate Energy, a Midwest-based organization that works to build equity through climate action, helps to carry out the successes of FEJA and administers ILSFA statewide. Elevate’s team provides customers with resources to make informed energy choices and seeks to improve the quality of life for families that are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The organization designs and implements programs to make sure that clean and affordable energy is within reach for everyone regardless of zip code. Elevate has been an Energy Foundation grantee since the early 90’s and is celebrating two decades of impact in 2020. 

“Elevate Energy does the critical work of connecting people with clean energy programs that can deliver real and immediate benefits to a family or individual—whether it’s making a home more comfortable and livable, lowering someone’s utility bills, or improving financial security, and more,” said Nick Magrisso, Energy Foundation’s Program Director, Midwest Campaigns. “By working in the community and being a trusted expert, Elevate is able to demystify how to become a clean energy beneficiary: contact Elevate Energy.” 

Through ILSFA, Elevate works closely with solar developers and installers to deliver clean energy benefits to homeowners, renters, and non-profits across the state. Qualifying households must meet specific criteria: all households must meet the income requirement of 80 percent or less of Area Median Income, and a quarter of the program’s incentives are reserved for projects serving environmental justice communities. 

Emma Baumgart

Marketing is a critical component to ensure that the benefits of ILSFA reach those who need them most and are fully taken advantage of. “We utilize local grassroots organizations to get the word out about the program,” said Emma Baumgart, Senior Communications Coordinator at Elevate Energy. “They are trusted community voices within their neighborhoods, so we really value that partnership.” 

Beyond administering the solar incentives program, Elevate offers a holistic approach for improving health, resilience, and economic benefits for low-income communities.

Sylvia Ewing

“The same zipcodes are always impacted, so we are being incredibly intentional about making connections and collaborating to serve those people as best we can,” said Sylvia Ewing, Director of Strategic Communication, Marketing, and Outreach.

To confirm that the promises made to residents in these areas are met, Elevate follows up by managing contractors and vendors that offer easy solutions to implement clean affordable energy. They come from the communities they serve with an equity perspective and remain hands-on at every stage of implementation. 

Collaborative partnerships are at the core of Elevate’s design. By establishing mutual interests with municipalities and governments, homeowners and renters, utilities, and other partner organizations, they have been able to build strong alliances to advance solar energy and energy efficiency services.

Trainees in a solar workforce development program inspect a solar panel. Photo courtesy Elevate Energy.

In addition to solar installations through ILSFA for Illinoisans who meet the criteria, FEJA provides numerous workforce development opportunities that include a solar jobs training program with an emphasis on job creation for under-served communities. Elevate also manages a contractor accelerator program to help already-established diverse, minority businesses transition into the emerging clean energy economy.

“Progressive policy that lets us operate these programs is really essential, and as we continue to expand our work nationally, advocating for that policy in other states is also important,” Emma said. “Solar for All was a really bold idea and it has had a big impact, so we want this program to be a model so that other states can do the same.” 

Elevate is working hard to have more single-family home projects in the greater Illinois area within the next 12 months. They are committed to building robust and authentic relationships and leveraging all feedback, while keeping equity top of mind in the climate action conversation. By investing in grassroots engagement, Elevate is encouraging and strengthening new voices to find creative solutions and build resilient communities.


Story author Karla Mendoza was an Energy Foundation 2020 summer intern.