10/23/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Solar Surprises in Illinois

Gazing out the window on a long roadtrip heading to southwestern Wisconsin from Chicagoland, something luminous caught my eye. Inconspicuous small solar installations periodically dotted the roadside of Interstate 90W. Perhaps overlooked or mundane to others, this sight sparked my interest. My immediate Google search offered little background information, so I zipped off a series of e-mails to find out who put these up, why, when and how far reaching was the project. Behind the wheel, my husband grew amused by my new obsession with these mysterious tollway panels.

I happen to care because I'm a clean energy advocate. And I was actually in the process of writing an ode to Illinois solar, since these shining achievements tend to fall under the radar. That might change this week. Between October 21-24, over ten thousand solar enthusiasts are heading to Chicago's McCormick Place for Solar Power International. This massive trade show is putting Chicago in the solar spotlight for good reason. Our backyard is brimming with an array of solar advancements. Yet most people wouldn't think to mix the words "solar" and "Illinois" in the same sentence. Misperceptions prevail here in the Prairie State, with more people familiar with "clean coal" (which actually does not exist) than a solar farm.

We need to do a better job giving props to the solar brightspots in Illinois. The fact is, right now solar installations are booming, the price of PV systems is plummeting, rebates and incentives are sweetening the deals, and yes, Illinois has sufficient sunlight! From residential to commercial to big box to industrial brownfields, a wide range of innovative installations are lighting our landscape. Chicago is home to the country's first and largest urban solar farm, the 40-acre Exelon City Solar in West Pullman powers 1,500 homes. Several more solar farms twice the size have been built and are on the way. Deerfield-based Walgreens, a green leader soon to have 350 solar-powered stores throughout the U.S., is building the nation's first zero-energy retail store in Evanston, layered with PV panels. Solar canopy trees around Chicagoland now allow electric cars to drive on sunshine. Nearly 250 solar schools throughout Illinois learn first-hand how sunlight is converted to electricity. Numerous universities are cultivating future leaders with formidable teams competing in the Solar Decathlon home design and the American Challenge solar powered car design challenges.

Solar has also become an economic engine in Illinois. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 187 solar companies exist throughout the value chain in Illinois, employing 1,700 people, many of whom cannot be outsourced. Illinois is becoming a world-class solar technology innovation hotspot thanks to prolific research universities (University of Illinois, Northwestern, University of Chicago), acclaimed national labs (Argonne, Fermilab) and local leading solar companies. Even the California-based utility Edison International recently acquired Chicago-based SoCore Energy, a commercial solar developer.

Illinoisans may not be fully aware of the new solar realities or remarkable strides, but if we're ever to disrupt dirty energy, we need to take notice -- and take action as well.

Despite the economic and environmental benefits and popular public opinion, our renewable future may be in jeopardy. As a means to boost the clean energy economy, Illinois set renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in 2007. The RPS benchmarks require that 25 percent of our energy be generated from renewable sources by 2025, and 6 percent must come from solar energy. However, some serious flaws in this make-or-break law are hindering solar progress and reform is badly needed. The solar and wind industries, along with the environmental community, are urging the Illinois legislature to fix the RPS with SB103, despite Exelon's blocking efforts. According to Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, "fixing the RPS could be a tipping point for solar and renewable energy in Illinois."

It's time we give world-changing solar energy a welcome nod and a hearty embrace and shrug off the grip of fossil fuel/nuclear power and its entrenched advantage. Our regional flood and drought cycle is a painful reminder that climate change is real. Weaning off our carbon addiction is a Must Do in protecting the planet. Smart policies and incentives can help us break down barriers and shift forward to clean energy. As goes the Midwest, so goes the world.

My greatest hope is that one day solar technology becomes a same old, just another, standard thing, similar to the dashed white lines we followed along our roadtrip signaling we could pass ahead. For now, solar is viable, accelerating, and transformative. Let's keep an eye out for those gleaming PV panels, celebrate our thriving solar ecosystem and keep demanding MORE.