The warnings from scientists about Earth’s climate emergency haven’t been lost on Seven Generations Ahead, the Oak Park-based nonprofit. Humans need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050, SGA executive director Gary Cuneen says, repeatedly.

That urgency is the reason SGA is Oak Park’s strongest solar evangelist. Transitioning residences and institutions to solar energy has become a primary focus of the 21-year-old sustainability nonprofit. Clean energy is also a critical part of the workplan for the Oak Park River Forest Sustainability Plan, known as PlanItGreen (PIG), that SGA oversees.  

One reason to emphasize energy is because everyone — homes, businesses, schools, churches— depends on it, yet the major energy source (fossil fuels) is dirty and detrimental to the planet and human health. A cleaner form of energy, solar is renewable, meaning it’s obtained from resources that are naturally replenished on a human timescale, making it critical in fighting the climate crisis. 

As it is with any emerging technology, people can be initially skeptical. What SGA does is educate, and educate some more through lunch-and-learns, presentations and strategy sessions that help community members understand what they’ll be getting with solar. It also emphasizes that solar infrastructure and installations can provide much needed jobs, and save households, businesses and institutions money on their energy bills.

It’s that last benefit that’s a key selling point. But before the savings, people will actually have to experience solar.

Progress is happening. 

The Park District of Oak Park, an early adopter that SGA advised, has nine facilities that use energy generated by rooftop solar panels, and the district expects to add more. “We’ve worked with the park district to analyze options for buying solar energy from new projects being built in Illinois,” Cuneen says. “We’re beginning to have the same conversations with District 200 and their procurement consultants.”

SGA’s solar advocacy now extends beyond Oak Park. “We’re exploring with a large-scale utility solar project that ultimately institutions across Oak Park and River Forest and beyond could connect to,” Cuneen says. “We’re trying to create those sorts of connections that will drive new project development in solar.”

The village of Broadview has a project initiated by Mayor Katrina Thompson called the Solar Industrial Corridor, which SGA has advised on ownership and financing options. For more than a year, SGA has collaborated with Chicago Public Schools on a program called “CPS Goes Solar.” An RFP was just released for 13 CPS buildings to tap solar on their buildings.

Cuneen credits SGA/PIG solar consultant Mark Burger, who has 40 years of industry experience, including a stint at the U.S. Department of Energy, with progress on these outreach efforts. Burger has “stepped up outreach on a number of fronts” and is working to “bring together taxing bodies in Oak Park and River Forest to make procurement of onsite solar or offsite (community solar subscriptions)” a reality. “Most large entities are not used to making long-term energy procurements. That’s one of the biggest ideas to get across to them.” He adds, “They also want to be assured that they’re going to get clean electricity at a stable price… and avoid the volatility of energy prices.”

While solar adaptation is more than a dream, it’s far from mainstream. In a village of 20,000 resident units, Oak Park has about 450 residential installations. River Forest has about 100. The Park District of Oak Park is the biggest nonresidential. Statewide, only about 1% of electricity comes from solar.

Burger says the state’s 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) seeks to make solar “equitable for all incomes and all types of people.”

Over the last decade serious efforts were made to increase the economies of scale, making solar cheaper, he says. “Solar is still fighting uphill against the incumbent system.

“The technology is good. The economics are there. The biggest [obstacle] is politics.”

Despite that, Burger says solar “will eventually become the primary form of energy.”

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