This week, the Chicago Tribune reports that the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) filed a petition with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) to require Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd) to offer its customers the opportunity to participate in a three-year "community solar" pilot program. Just to get the players straight: ComEd is a regulated electric utility which services close to four million customers in northern Illinois. The CUB is the statutory representative of Illinois utility customers in all proceedings before the commission and federal agencies regulating the utility industry. (These organizations are more often called consumer or ratepayer advocates). On its website, EDF describes itself as a non-profit environmental advocacy and research organization whose mission is to "preserve the natural systems on which all life depends." The ICC is the state agency directed by statute to balance the interests of consumers and service providers "to ensure the provision of adequate, efficient, reliable, safe and least-cost public utility services."

Community solar is also known as "shared renewables," "solar gardens" or, sometimes, "virtual net metering." Essentially, in a community solar program, multiple electric utility customers invest in a solar project and share in the financial proceeds, whether that is from the sale of excess power to the grid and/or renewable energy credits, based on their level of investment. Most, if not all, of the customers will not actually be physically connected to the solar facility.

The benefits of community solar include reducing the level of investment required of the host residence or business and providing a means for all electric customers to experience the economic (and intrinsic) benefits of solar, even those who would otherwise be unable to install solar on their own residences or businesses (e.g., rented properties; shaded or otherwise unsuitable roofs). On the other hand, the soft costs of marketing and administering a program to multiple small investors can be significant, reducing those economic benefits.

Community solar has also met resistance with regulators; while working in government, I heard concerns about soliciting of consumers, particularly seniors, to "go green" without hosting a solar system. (An Arizona solar company was recently fined for deceptive sales tactics, including targeting of senior citizens and making false claims about potential savings, though not related to a community solar product.) Electricity pricing can be confusing for consumers, even when dealing with their local utilities. Regulators are still sorting through the complaints and litigation resulting from the large numbers of electric and gas customers who switched to third-party suppliers over the past couple years, enticed by low natural gas prices and what they thought were fixed-price contracts, but who then faced bills two and three times higher than "normal" as a result of price hikes during the polar vortex events of 2013-14.

The other major challenge for community solar has been to bring the utilities on board. Solar, like any form of distributed generation, will reduce the utilities' revenues. Here is where the Illinois proceeding may pave the way for community solar programs nationwide. In any such proceeding, the utility will be able to argue for recovery of administrative costs and fixed distribution costs, as well as for a return on the company's investment.

In a twist on traditional community solar, California utility PG&E will begin later this year to offer its customers a stake in solar energy purchased from facilities within the PG&E service territory. Customers will see the extra costs of the solar energy they consume, plus related program costs, with a credit for standard generation that is avoided, on their monthly bills. And, avoiding a frequent criticism of subsidized clean energy programs, the rate structure ensures that customers who don't participate in the program will not share in the costs.