Your 2019 guide to getting solar panels for your home in Illinois
This page is a complete guide to the complicated and sometimes confusing process of installing solar panels on your Illinois home. Since there's a lot to consider, we've separated the page into sections to help you find what you are looking for. If you find this page useful, please share it with someone who might also find it interesting!
** What's new for 2019 **
The Land of Lincoln is the 5th most populous state in the nation, and has the 5th largest state economy. With all those people and all that business going on, it'd be a shame if there weren't some extensive incentive programs for residential solar power in place. The good news is strong solar power rebates help push the payback timeframe on a solar power system to a respectable 9 or fewer years. And with the Illinois Solar Energy Association gearing up to offer performance payments to solar generators, now is a great time to get into the solar game. Take a good look at our rundown of Illinois solar power incentives below.
Questions? Our network of solar experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page. You can get discounted on-grid pricing as low as $3,500/kW! This is paired with the Illinois solar incentives you see below.
The Solar Strategy section is focused on the 3 ways of paying for solar in Illinois, so you can decide which is best for you. We've created a tool that asks you a few questions and recommends whether you should pursue a solar lease, loan, or outright purchase. Then, we provide detailed analysis of how each works.
The Policy Information section contains all our latest research on the rules set by lawmakers and the Public Utilities Commission, which determine how easy it is to go solar in Illinois. These policies and rules govern everything from renewable energy mandates to interconnection, and have a huge effect on the viability of solar.
Finally, the Solar Incentives section includes information about money-back rebates and grants, tax credits, and tax exemptions for going solar in Illinois.
Click any of the boxes below to go to that section of the page, or scroll down to read the page in order.
|Your Illinois Solar Strategy|
|Comparing Solar Investment Options|
|Paying Cash for Solar in Illinois|
|Solar Loans in Illinois|
|Solar PPAs in Illinois|
|Solar Purchase Payback Time in Illinois|
|Illinois Solar Policy Information|
|Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)|
|RPS Solar Carve-Out|
Your Solar Strategy in Illinois
Figuring out the best way to go solar in Illinois can be a little daunting. From loans and leases to power-purchase agreements, there are a lot of options out there. To help you pick the one that might be best, we've created the handy decision tool below.
We'll ask you a few simple questions about you and your home. Once you're done, we'll recommend a good option. Further down this page, we provide cost estimates and example return-on-investment calculations for all the various options:
How to pay for solar panels in Illinois
The chart above shows the 25-year returns for an investment in solar whether you choose to purchase a system with cash or pay over time with a loan or Power-Purchase Agreement (PPA). One thing it's important to note is: solar makes you a lot of money in Illinois. Yes, we said "makes!" You see, even though the state's electricity prices are pretty low, the state gets enough sun that solar saves you big money from day 1. And solar is cheaper than ever before, which, combined with the the Feds' 30% solar tax credit and Illinois's new direct SREC payments, means a solar panel system pays itself back quickly and makes you lots of money over its 25-year warrantied life!
Now let's discuss that chart above. We've examined three scenarios for going solar in Illinois, including a solar PPA, buying solar with a solar loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC), or buying solar with cash. As you can see, the cash purchase option leads to the highest dollar-amount returns over time, but look a little closer. Taking a solar loan or HELOC and paying for the system over time (the orange bars) means you'll spend thousands of dollars less over time, while reaping a big financial benefit in year 1.
That's because you take a loan for the system, but you still get all the benefits of paying up front. In Illinois, that means the Federal tax credit, SREC sales, and big annual energy savings. With those incentives, you'll actually come out way ahead after the first year. And even though you'll be making loan payments for 15 years, the first-year windfall is so big, you'll never actually spend any of your own money.
Finally, take a look at the blue bars. They represent a solar Power-Purchase Agreement (PPA), which is also called third-party ownership. With a PPA, the solar installation company puts panels on your roof at no cost to you, and you by the eletrciity for a little bit less then you had been paying the utility company for their dirty energy. PPAs in Illinois are awesome, because all that sunshine means you start saving money right away. Your savings may start small, but they'll finish big, because the lease cost will rise by less than the electric company's annual rate hikes. Third-party ownership is an excellent option even if you have equity or cash to put down, because it can save you tons of money!
How we got these numbers
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average family in Illinois needs just over 10,000 kWh per year to run all the appliances and gadgets that they use in their life. At an average price of $.13/kWh, that electricity costs your family over $1,300. To make enough electricity to just about meet those needs, you need about twenty-three 325-watt solar panels, which adds up to a system size of 7,500 watts, or 7.5-kW.
For the purposes of the calculations below, we'll assume you have an average home with average needs. If you're spending more than $1,300 per year on electricity for your Illinois home, you're a high user, and you could save a lot more with solar! Get in touch with our expert solar partners today to see how much you could save.
If you're ready to learn more about the average solar savings for an Illinois home, read on!
Option 1: Paying cash for solar
An outright purchase used to be the only way to get solar, and it's still the option that provides the "biggest" financial returns. The reason we put "biggest" in quotes here is because it's technically true—with lower equipment costs, the big Federal tax credits, and the Illinois Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) payments, solar costs less than ever before, and a solar installation pays itself off in 8 years. But if you're interested in solar as an investment, taking a loan to pay for the system is often a better option.
With a loan, you can make monthly payments instead of putting $15,000 down on a solar system, which means you save money on electricity as you pay down the cost of your panels. If you have good credit or equity in your home, and you can secure an interest rate of 4.5% or less, a loan is the option to go with. It's like being able to start a business that is sure to succeed, just by having a roof. Read about loans below.
If you've got cash and you prefer to pay up front, you'll have to plunk down $15,000, but tax breaks and energy savings will erase a bunch of that after just 1 year. Over 25 years, your system will have produced over $31,000 in income, after your system cost is paid back. The reason this works is that solar offsets your electricity costs—enough to save you $1,175 in year 1—and it just goes up from there. As the electric company raises rates, you save more and more, and more...
Here’s how the numbers work for a 7.5-kW rooftop solar system in Illinois:
- Installing a typical 7.5-kW solar system should start at about $15,000 after the Illinois Adjustable Block Program discount. That's far cheaper than solar has ever been, but it's still a big investment. Don’t worry, because after tax breaks and energy savings, your first-year costs will be considerably less than that.
- Next, the Federal government offers a great income tax credit of 30% of your final system costs. That's $4,500 you won't be paying to Uncle Sam this year, and it brings your first-year investment down to $10,500.
- And during the year, your system will generate enough electricity to offset $1,179 of your bill, which means a final first-year cost of just $9,321 for solar.
- Your electricity savings will quickly pile up, meaning your system will pay for itself in just 8 years. But your panels carry 25-year warranties, and you'll see a total net profit of over $31,000 by the end of that period. The internal rate of return for this investment is a solid 14.9%—much better than a long-term investment in the stock market!
- And here's a nice bonus to consider: your home's value just increased by about $10,500, too—your expected cost after incentives.
- In addition to all that cash (and home value), you’ve created some green for the earth as well by not using electricity from fossil fuels. It's like planting 151 trees a year, every year your solar power system is humming.
Keep in mind, the numbers above are based on an average home in Illinois. If you're ready for a custom quote for a solar panel system, our network of experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page.
Option 2: Using a loan to pay for solar
You don't need thousands of dollars sitting around to pay for solar. If you finance a solar purchase with a loan or home equity, you can still own solar panels and reap all the benefits. Heck, even if you do have the cash, getting a loan to pay for solar is often the best option when it comes to percentage return on investment.
That’s because, in Illinois, using a loan to pay for solar is like investing in a business that's sure to succeed, and also earns you a tax break!. You'll come out thousands ahead this year, and you'll see a spectacular profit over the 25-year life of your system. The reason this works so well is that you're paying over time, but reaping all the benefits now.
In Illinois, those benefits include energy savings and a big Federal tax credit. Your energy savings will offset most of the cost of the loan payments, too, which might sound like it's too good to be true... so let's take a look at the numbers.
A solar purchase like this will make sense for you if the following is true about you and your current situation:
- You have good eneough credit to qualify for a solar loan or get a home-equity line of credit (HELOC) for $15,000, with a fixed rate of 5% or lower and a 15-year repayment period. Don't be put off if you're offered a higher rate. It just means a tiny bit less of the thousands of dollars you'll make with solar.
- You love making money without much risk.
Here’s how the numbers pencil out for a typical Illinois homeowner who makes a solar purchase with a loan:
- Installing the average 7.5-kW solar system should start at about $15,000. That's how big your loan will need to be to cover the system cost.
- The electricity you'll save in the first year of operation would have cost $1,179, but your annual loan payments will be $1,377, meaning you would spend about $200 on solar this year, but...
- You'll get a huge tax break! Uncle Sam will give you 30% of the cost of your system back as an income tax credit, which in this case means $4,500 you won't be paying the Feds this year.
- All those incentives mean you'll come out $4,300 ahead after year 1, and it's smooth sailing from then on out. Your loan payments will actually start to be eclipsed by electricity bill savings after year 5, because the utility company raises rates but your loan payments stay the same!
- By the time you've paid off your loan in 2033, you'll see yearly savings of over $1,700. After 25 years, your total profit will be $25,578! Really awesome for a $0-down investment.
- On top of the green that will stay in your pocket, your system will mean green for the environment, too—151 trees-worth, every year!
Keep in mind, the numbers above are based on an average home in Illinois. If you're ready for a custom quote for a solar loan, our network of experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page.
Option 3: Buying the electricity, not the panels with a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA)
A Power-Purchase Agreement (PPA) is a great way to go solar if you haven't got stacks of cash or oodles of equity in your home. With a PPA, it's possible to get solar panels for $0 down and see big savings over 25 years!
As for PPAs in Illinois: the electricity costs here aren't very high—we're at almost exactly the national average—but the solar is cheap enough that the Illinois sunshine is enough to make solar power really profitable! That means a PPA saves you money starting on day 1. For now, the cost of the solar electricity generated by a 7.5-kW solar system should be around $997 per year, but the energy the panels generate will save you $1,179 per year. That's $182 you get to keep in your pocket this year, just for saying yes to solar!
And those savings will only get larger over time. As the utility company raises rates, your PPA costs will go up by a smaller amount, meaning you'll see greater annual savings. Over 25 years, our estimate shows a total savings of $7,118. And the best part is the panels will be owned and maintained by the installation company, so all you have to do is brag to the Joneses down the street about your green habits!
Keep in mind, the numbers above are based on an average home in Illinois. If you're ready for a custom quote for a solar PPA, our network of experts are on call to assist you. Simply sign up for personalized assistance on our special solar deals page.
Illinois Solar Policy Information
Ever wonder why solar seems to be everywhere in some states, but not in others? We did too.
State legislatures and public utilities commissions can enact rules to make solar power accessible for everyone. Favorable rules explain why some of the cloudiest states—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, are doing so well with solar, and yet some of those with the most natural solar resources—like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia—are doing so poorly.
Below is important information about the public policy, rules, and economic reasons that affect your ability to go solar here in Illinois:
25% by 2025
A Renewables Portfolio Standard (“RPS”) basically requires utilities in the state to source a percentage of energy from renewable sources by a given date. A strong RPS is important because it forces utility companies to promote conversion to renewable energy. That generally means free money for you in the form of solar power rebates and performance payments when you switch to solar.
Illinois has a solid goal of having 25% of its energy needs met by renewable energy sources by 2025. While this is by no means the most aggressive RPS in the country, it’s a really good way of getting electric utility companies to help the little guy (that means you!) get into the solar game.
What's an RPS? Your state legislature paves the way for strong solar energy incentives to flourish by setting standards for renewable energy generation within their territories. Those standards are called the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). If utility companies do not meet these standards, they must pay alternative compliance fees directly to the state. Many utilities then determine the best ways to source their energy from renewable sources that are less expensive than this fee.
An RPS is a mandate that says "Hey utilities! Y'all now have to make a certain percentage of your electricity from renewable sources. If not, you'll have to pay us huge fines." The consequences are good, because utilities usually try to meet these RPS standards by creating solar power incentives for you, the homeowner. Read more about Renewable Portfolio Standards.
RPS solar carve out
1.5% by 2025
Illinois mandates that 6% of its RPS (1.5% of total electricity) come from solar power. That’s a decent, but not spectacular number, but it means that the big utilities have an extra incentive to purchase generation from smart homeowners like you who produce their own power from solar panels.
What's a solar set aside? A solar set aside guarantees a specific portion of the overall renewable energy mix generated comes from the sun. For those states with progressive standards, high alternative compliance payments, and clear solar carve outs, the faster those areas become ripe for solar.
Some states have higher alternative compliance fees than others, and some states have more progressive alternative energy standards and deadlines than others do.
For instance, New Jersey has an overall RPS of 22.5% by the year 2021. That requires local utilities to source 22.5% of their energy mix from renewable sources by the year 2021. Pretty good. However, New Jersey also has a specific solar set aside of 4.1% by 2028. That’s the type of firm commitment which really gets the industry rolling forward. No wonder why New Jersey is one of the hottest solar markets right now!
Illinois Electricity Prices
The average price of electricity in Illinois is 13 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), about half a penny less than the national average. But everyone expects the price of electricity to rise dramatically very soon because of the EPA regulating the emissions of CO2 from power plants.
Whether you believe that’s a good idea or not, the bottom line is that electricity costs are going up for people that don’t produce their own electricity. This is how solar saves you money, today and long into the future.
Why are electricity prices so important? Because that is what solar power is directly competing against. The cost to produce power with solar is relatively constant (of course how much sun hits your area has an effect), so if you are paying $0.40 per watt for power, then you make FOUR TIMES AS MUCH as the guy or girl paying $0.10 per watt electricity.
The caveat here is that if the $0.10 per watt person has a HUGE rebate, they may be better off than the $0.40 per watt person. Because of that, states without any renewable standards tend to be heavily reliant on cheap coal for electricity, and also have very low electricity prices. When electricity prices are artificially low, that hinders the ability of solar energy to achieve meaningful payback in the state.
Illinois Net Metering
With net metering in place, your utility is required to track your renewable energy production and consumption during each monthly billing cycle. Any surplus you produce is carried over as a credit onto your future bills. Net metering is required to be available for you under Illinois law, unless your electricity is supplied by a cooperative or municipal cooperation. So far so good.
Illinois’ net metering policy would be just about perfect, if those credits hung around indefinitely, but they don’t. At the end of every annual period all remaining credits expire and revert back to the utility without compensation. You may select an annual period that ends with last day of either their April or October billing period, so at least you have a bit of flexibility to maximize your credit usage. What this means is that you need to make sure your solar system isn’t so big that you generate more electricity in a year than you use, not that you would want to anyway.
Note: Illinois is studying whether changes should be made to the net metering program. If the program is changed or done away with, it could have serious negative consequences for the financial returns of a solar installation here. Check here for updates.
What is net metering? Net metering is the billing arrangement where you can sell excess electricity back to your utility for equal the amount you are charged to consume it. The more customer friendly net metering policies, the higher the grade.
The grade here specifically reflects individual solar system capacity, caps on program capacity limits, restrictions on “rollover” of kWh from one month to the next (yep just like cell phone minutes), metering issues (like charges for new meters), Renewable Energy Credit (REC) ownership, eligible customers and technology (the more renewables the better), being able to aggregate meters across the property for net metering, and safe harbor provisions to protect customers from solar tariff changes.
Illinois Interconnection Rules
Illinois makes it pretty easy as a homeowner to connect to the grid with solar panels. Your residential system using certified equipment (our on-the-ground partners have still got that covered!) qualifies for Illinois’ simplified interconnection procedures, and it should be pretty easy for you to get on the grid and start taking advantage of net metering. Your connection also will not be required to carry additional liability insurance; such safeguards are limited only to very large projects where mandatory insurance coverage makes more sense.
Interconnection rules are a little technical, but they basically allow you to “plug in” to the electric grid with solar panels on your roof. The more complex, out of date, or nonsensical the state rules are for plugging into the grid, the lower the grade.
Specifically, the grade reflects what technologies are eligible, individual system capacity, removing interconnection process complexity for smaller systems, interconnection timelines and charges, engineering charges, prohibiting the requirement of unnecessary external disconnects, certification, spot interconnection vs. wide area interconnection, technical screens, friendliness of legalese, insurance requirements, dispute resolution, and rule coverage.
Solar Incentives in Illinois
Next to high electricity prices and net metering, solar incentives have traditionally been the most important factor for whether home solar power makes financial sense in a state. In the past, some states with otherwise lousy policy had tremendous incentives that drove down the up-front cost of going solar so much that homeowners could save oodles of money even without net metering or a good RPS.
These days, the big incentive most people can get is the Federal Solar Tax Credit that earns you 30% of your costs back after just 1 year. State incentives play less of a role than in the past, but some really good ones are still out there, ready to help homeowners go solar and save money before you know it.
Let's see how Illinois measures up:
Illinois Solar Power Rebates
Up until this year, Illinois had offered a rebate for all customers of investor-owned utilities (ComEd and Ameren). The rebate amounted to $1,500/kW back on solar systems, up to 25% of project costs or $10,000, whichever was less.
Sadly, the rebate is now closed, and it looks like it ain't coming back. That makes a typical 5-kW solar system in Illinois abot $5,300 more expensive than last year. Boo, Illinois.
There is still hope for residents of Springfield and Chicago, which each have their own solar grant programs. Your installer (click here to see what you can save with solar power on your home) will give you all the details on those and any other grants and rebates you may qualify for.
How do solar rebates work? Similar to getting a rebate card from your local big box store for a dishwasher purchase, state legislatures also provide rebates for solar panel purchases to spur on investment and create new jobs. If you purchase the solar panel system yourself, you qualify for this free cash, which many times is a lump payment back to you. Some solar installers like to take this amount directly off the total installed price, and they'll handle the paperwork for you to make things a lot less complex.
The availability of state and utility rebates were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. The better the rebates, the higher the grade.
Illinois Solar Power Tax Credits
Illinois doesn’t offer any tax credits for solar power installations. This is a tried-and-true way other states use to encourage homeowners to go solar. Come on, Springfield! The good news is you’ll still qualify for the full 30% Federal tax credit.
About state solar tax credits: State tax credits are not technically free money. However, they are 'credits' and not 'deductions' which means that if you have the tax appetite to take advantage of them, then they can be a 1-to-1 dollar amount off your taxes instead of a fraction of the cost of the system. So that means they can be an important factor to consider. In certain circumstances, state tax credits can provide a very powerful incentive for people to go solar.
(Keep in mind, we are not tax professionals and give no tax advice so please consult a professional before acting on anything we say related to taxes)
The availability of personal tax credits for solar energy were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. The higher the tax credit amount, the higher the grade.
Solar Power Performance Payments
Adjustable Block Program
Solar Power Performance Payments are just extra money you get for feeding solar powered electricity into the grid. In this case, "performance" refers to the energy production of your solar panels. Sometimes these payments are credited to your bill for every kWh your panels produce, and sometimes they come in the form of cash paid to you for proof of generation.
Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) are virtual "proof of generation," and are earned when electricity is created from clean sources, like solar panels on your rooftop. What makes them valuable is that utility companies need to purchase them from renewable generation owners (that's you) in order to avoid paying fees to the state of Illinois for not producing enough of their own clean energy.
The utilities would rather reimburse you for producing solar powered electricity than make the investments in land, labor, planning, and equipment themselves. And thankfully, the state of Illinois has come up with an excellent way for those payments to save you money today: The Adjustable Block Program, or ABP for short.
What the Adjustable Block Program is and does
The ABP is an opt-in program under which you agree to sell the rights to the first 15 years of SRECs produced by your system for cash now. But don't worry about all the paperwork! Under the ABP, your installer (aka "Approved Vendor") does all the work of submitting an application and applying the savings to your final price.
The first blocks open in January, 2019, at which time Approved Vendors will begin submitting applications. If you're getting quotes for home solar from Illinois solar installers, make sure to ask how they'll use the ABP to save you money on installation.
For now, we estimate that the average home in Illinois with a 7.5-kW solar panel system on its roof will earn the homeowner a savings of $9,750 on the system. That represents almost 40% of the up-front cost of the system.
Caveats: there's no telling exactly how much you can save, or whether the solar installer will pass all those savings on to you. They do, after all, have to partner with an SREC aggregator, pay fees, and do all the paperwork. Secondly, because the ABP payments reduce your up-front cost, you'll see smaller savings from the federal solar tax credit, which is based on 30% of your total costs for the system. The final caveat is a doozy: if your system fails to produce the expected energy, you'll be on the hook for the difference. You shouldn't be too worried about that, since solar panels are covered by 25-year warranties, but make sure your installer also provides a warranty for their work, and maybe even a production guarantee.
Explanation of performance payments: Performance payments represent a big chunk of the financial rationale for going solar, and in many instances they make your decision a wise one. For certain states, if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, not only will you be cutting your electric bill down to size, but you'll be getting paid additional cash from your utility company. Pretty awesome, huh? Not only are you generating electricity for yourself, freezing your own popsicles with sun, and feeling like you’re doing something smart for your children or any of the other 4 reasons people go solar, but you are getting PAID!
Utility companies are paying people with solar panels on their roofs because their states say they have to, otherwise they will pay a fee. Therefore, the payment amount to homeowners is typically a little bit less than the amount they would be billed for by the state. For states with these alternative compliance fees, Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) exchanges have popped up. In the above chart, we outlined an estimate of yearly payments a homeowner might expect from the utility company for the SREC credits from their solar energy system.
Expected SREC payments were calculated by using the latest trade values in the SRECtrade database. The availability of feed-in tariffs were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. The higher the expected monthly payments, the higher the grade.
We've got a great article if you like to read more about what SRECs are and how to earn them.
Property Tax Exemption
Illinois has a property tax incentive to encourage solar power use. When you register your solar system with the chief county assessment officer (again, our partners on the ground will take care of all of this for you (click here to see what you can save with solar power on your home), your solar equipment will be valued at no more than the value that would be given to a conventional energy system. That’s not as clear-cut as the 100% property tax exemption that we’ve seen in a lot of states, but money saved is money saved, right?
About solar property tax exemptions: Property tax exemption status is a pretty big factor when putting together your investment considerations. Some argue that solar power adds approximately 20 times your annual electricity bill savings (if you own the system and are not leasing). Other studies seem to indicate a home price premium about equal to solar panel cost, minus any incentives like the federal solar tax credit.
For many average-sized solar power systems on a house, that can mean adding $20,000 to your home value. And if you don't believe us, believe the bean counters: Many banks and solar financing companies now offer traditional style equity-based home loans for installing solar. An additional $20,000 in property tax basis in many states amounts to a big chunk of change owed back to the state. However, many states have complete exemptions from added taxes when you install solar on your home!
The availability of a property tax exemption for solar energy was sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. Grades in this category are basically all-or-nothing. Either you got it or you don't. Thankfully, many states have "got it.".
Sales Tax Exemption
Illinois offers no sales tax exemption up front, meaning you’ll pay between 6.25% to 10% of the installed costs. Other states do offer a 100% sales tax exemption, and Illinois even offers the exemption for wind energy installations, so the legislature needs to catch up here.
What's the deal with solar power sales tax exemptions? When states give you a sales tax break on solar, we notice. You should too. State sales tax exemption status for the purchase of solar energy systems were sourced from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy Efficiency. Sales tax exemptions, if present, were all 100%. A handful of states are completely exempt from sales tax regardless, and therefore received ‘A’ grades by default (OR, DE, MT, AK, and NH).
The consensus on Illinois solar power rebates and incentives
It was a close call, but we just can’t give Illinois an A in solar policy. While an 8 year payback timeframe is strong, there’s just not enough solid policy footing to guarantee that estimate for all homeowners. If the adjustable block grant program directly paid homeowners for their system’s project output, we’d be a lot happier. We’d also like to see a new RPS that extends Illinois’ goals past 25% renewables, maybe all the way to 100%.
For now, though, the sun is shining bright on Illinois, and the state’s solid B grade is well-earned.