Southland communities honored for work in solar energy
Will County, Park Forest and Richton Park joined a dozen other government entities at Argonne National Laboratory to be recognized by SolSmart for efforts in encouraging the growth of solar energy.
When it comes to energy sources, "there ain't one better than the sun," said Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg, who chairs the Energy Committee of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.
The caucus collaborated with the SolSmart program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to provide assistance to towns and counties that want to make it easier and more affordable for residents and businesses to go solar.
SolSmart presented plaques Friday to representatives of each community and Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti handed out proclamations from Gov. Rauner congratulating the communities during an hour-long program that featured brief speeches by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster , D-Naperville, Sanguinetti and state Rep. David Olsen, R-Downers Grove, and environmentalists.
Many speakers called on the local officials to lead and set an example for others regarding environmental issues, noting that even small efforts can make a difference.
To receive a designation, municipalities and counties had to change their local processes to reduce the time and money it takes to install a solar energy system. They simplified the permitting process, made necessary zoning changes, provided information and checklists on line to help consumers understand what is needed, and cross trained their permitting, planning and inspection staffs, officials said.
The 15 MMC members became the largest cohort to be designated by SolSmart, and gave Illinois the most designees of any state in the nation, said Zachary Greene, SolSmart program director with the Solar Foundation.
They are among 18 communities in Illinois and 180 nationally that have achieved the SolSmart designation since the program was launched in 2016, officials said.
The SolSmart designation "means you are open for business" when it comes to solar energy, Greene told the award recipients.
Foster, a scientist, who had harsh words for President Donald Trump administration's "ignorance" on climate change, said, "Now more than ever we need informed citizens who understand the facts and solutions to combat this growing threat. And, we need leadership at the local level to confront this challenge and mobilize communities into action. The SolSmart awards are a recognition of that leadership."
"We can take action ourselves, in our local communities and not wait for the federal government," he said.
Will County and Park Forest achieved SolSmart's highest designation — gold — and Richton Park earned the silver. Aurora, which is partially in Will County, also achieved gold, while Cook County earned a bronze designation.
Will County is the first county in Illinois to get gold while Park Forest earned the most points, said Dave Bennett, executive director of the caucus.
The designation gives the village a platform to make people aware of solar energy and its benefits, said Ostenburg after the presentation.
"What we have come to realize is that there are diminishing fuel sources. If an energy source, like coal, has to be converted, there are byproducts. With the sun, there are no negative byproducts," he said.
"Solar energy is much cheaper than it was years ago," he said. "All you have to do is create the opportunity and keep costs down."
"At the end of the day, it's the right thing to do," Richton Park Mayor Rick Reinbold said. His village has not yet had many requests for solar energy, "but we want to make it accessible for residents to take advantage of it and make it easy for them to do," he said.
Samantha Bluemer, Will County's energy and conservation specialist, said she hopes to reach out to municipalities within the county to encourage them to get involved with SolSmart.
Will County recently approved its first solar farm in Crete Township, and Bluemer said she hopes to target areas that could accommodate such development.
Sanguinetti encouraged community leaders to "build on these efforts."
The solar industry will "grow rapidly," she said.
Fueling the growth is the state's Future Energy Jobs Act, which offers incentives for solar development.
Local communities are now "on the front lines of environmental protection," said Eileen Furey, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
To earn bronze, communities must provide a Solar Statement outlining its solar goals, create a permitting checklist and review zoning ordinances.
The silver and gold awards build on that and require additional work in planning, zoning and development regulations.
Other towns recognized with a bronze designation were Brookfield, Darien, Glencoe, Hanover Park, Highland Park and Kane County.
Those earning silver were Hawthorn Woods and Schaumburg.
Gold recipients also included Beach Park and South Barrington.