The name West Pullman invokes the area’s industrial history: in the 1800s it was populated by workers for the Pullman railroad car company located just to the east. The railroad and the Calumet River forming West Pullman’s boundaries were veins for raw materials and industrial products, in a region where coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, foundries, and steel mills spewed pollution.
So perhaps West Pullman is a fitting site for an installation symbolic of the shift toward clean energy happening in the state and, if far South Siders have their way, in that part of the city.
In 2010, a ten-megawatt solar farm began producing power on a forty-acre brownfield site, billed as the nation’s largest urban solar farm. It was built by the power company Exelon—owner of the state’s six nuclear plants—and it produces enough electricity to power up to 1,500 homes. The power is sold into energy markets, where power is procured for the state’s two utility companies—Ameren in downstate Illinois and Exelon’s own subsidiary, ComEd, in the Chicago area. In December 2020, Exelon agreed to sell the solar farm to Brookfield Renewable Partners.
Before the West Pullman solar farm went online, there were only about five megawatts of solar installed in the whole state of Illinois.
Six years later, the state passed ambitious clean energy legislation meant to make solar blossom across the state. Subsidies in the form of Renewable Energy Credits did indeed spark solar on homes and businesses statewide, as well as larger utility-scale solar farms on open land in downstate Illinois. Another energy bill passed in 2021 expanded the solar subsidies and programs to encourage solar development in low-income and environmental justice communities—those neighborhoods, like many on the South Side, that have suffered disproportionate harm from the fossil fuel industry.
Now, there are over 1,500 megawatts of solar installed statewide.
Coming years before the state’s solar industry began to take off, the West Pullman solar farm could be seen as ahead of its time.
A state program called Illinois Solar for All now makes it nearly free for many Chicago residents and non-profits like churches to get rooftop solar, though few people have taken advantage of it. Auburn Gresham resident Debra Earl was among the first South Side residents to get solar under that program in 2020, and she hopes her neighbors are inspired to do the same. Qualifying Chicagoans can also get free training in solar jobs under Illinois Solar for All, and get hired for local solar installations.
The solar farm is an important source of clean energy, but individual Chicagoans and the grid as a whole benefit even more when smaller solar installations are scattered on rooftops throughout neighborhoods. That way individual households can get the bill savings from solar, rather than essentially buying solar energy from the massive company that got $700 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies in the recent energy bill. As local leaders say, solar installations and solar jobs on the South Side would be one way to continue the transition from an industrial “sacrifice zone” burdened by pollution to a leader in the clean energy economy. (Kari Lydersen)
Correction, October 7, 2022: A previous version of this story failed to indicate that the solar farm changed ownership in 2021.
Exelon Solar Plant, 201 W. 120th St.