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Illinois Take A Shine to Solar Energy

Illinois aims to get 25% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025 in agreement with its renewable energy portfolio standard. One way to meet this goal? Solar panels.

Ready to assist in these efforts are the Illinois Center for Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation with their joint project, “R27-207: Technical and Financial Feasibility Study for Installation of Solar Panels at IDOT-owned Facilities.” Christopher Schmidt, IDOT’s air quality manager, leads the effort with Todd Rusk and Brian Deal, associate director and director, respectively, of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Smart Energy Design Assistance Center.

“As one of the largest landowners in the state, IDOT is committed to using this land to best serve the motoring public of Illinois and begin to make Illinois a leader in renewable energy,” Schmidt said.

To help IDOT prepare for a greener future, the team assesses the possibility of obtaining and installing solar panels on lands and buildings owned by the agency. They seek to answer two key questions: How much solar energy is needed based on electricity consumption and where can solar panels be placed?

To study the potential impacts of solar panels, they explore three purchasing methods to procure solar projects as well as create financial models.

“We learned that the larger the project, the lower the cost for installation and the more potential for the largest generation of electricity,” Schmidt said. “Larger sites and even collaboration with other state agencies would produce the ‘biggest bang for our buck.’”

To determine which areas of land would be best for solar panels, researchers screened potential installation sites and met with key stakeholders.

Areas such as rest stops and offices are ideal for solar panel installation because they don’t hinder traffic flow or interfere with highway maintenance. Key to the effort is a mapping tool developed by the research team to help IDOT easily identify potential sites for solar panels. The tool screens more than 1,000 sites and combines hundreds of data points to allow users to quickly scan possible suitable installation areas.

“We have preliminary information for each of those sites indicating the size of the site, whether it is potentially suitable or not suitable, and then the size of system that could be accommodated and the energy production that might be expected from a system on that site,” Rusk said.

The researchers are optimistic about what the future has in store for solar energy in Illinois.

“IDOT, like any other state agency, is here to serve the people of Illinois,” Schmidt said. “The ability to install these solar arrays and offset our carbon footprint seems like a no-brainer. If employed in the near future, IDOT could become one of the largest producers of renewable energy in the state of Illinois. You just can’t pass that opportunity up!”