Editor's note: This story is part of a collaboration with WNIJ. Read WNIJ Reporter Sarah Jesmer's story here and listen to her broadcast here. Listen to WNIJ's broadcast on why we came to this story here.
DeKALB — On 19 acres of unincorporated DeKalb County land, over 7,000 solar modules point straight up. When they’re activated in late January, the panels will tilt themselves as the sun passes overhead to maximize light absorption.
The development, located right outside of city limits at 1400 Twombly Road, was constructed over the summer and will generate 2,000 kilowatts of power for the neighboring Suburban Apartments, according to project documents submitted to the county and obtained by a FOIA request. The documents say construction cost $3.5 million.
Brett Robinson, technical consultant with Green Circuit, said all the power generated by the farm will go toward energy bill savings for the tenants living in Suburban Apartments.
The solar farm is the only government-supported solar farm of its type in the state. Once the farm is live, the developers will receive $4 million in incentive funds from the state.
In an interview with WNIJ, Shan Bedi, or Sukdharshan S. Bedi, property manager at Suburban Apartments, said he first approached the county with plans to build a solar farm in 2017 with the intention to reduce emissions.
“I love green energy,” Bedi said. “I just think we have done enough damage to the ozone layer … [and] all the environment. It’s my belief that maybe we need to all be responsible towards nature.”
Bedi said he’s a member of MCJ Investments LLC. MCJ Investments is the landlord of Suburban Apartments.
He couldn’t move forward with the project at first because the county didn’t allow solar energy zoning until it put together a set of regulations.
The project began to take shape in the summer of 2018, after the county passed its solar ordinance and lifted the moratorium.
Bedi said he asked SA Energy LLC to build a solar farm in DeKalb. SA Energy, the state-approved vendor for the solar farm, was incorporated in July 2018 and is managed by Virender Bedi, according to Secretary of State records. Virender is also listed as a member of MCJ Investments on court records.
A contact from SA Energy who asked to remain anonymous declined to comment on the relationship between MCJ Investments and SA Energy or the relationship between Shan and Virender.
Shan said SA Energy has nothing to do with Suburban Apartments.
Robinson, the lead developer on the project, submitted a special zoning request Aug. 1, 2018, to the county.
Shan and Robinson then presented their plan to the City of DeKalb’s Planning and Zoning Commission Sept. 5, 2018.
At the meeting, Robinson covered the microphone and said “gentrification” was a motivation for the solar farm.
“We’re trying to provide a better place to live, a greener place to live,” Robinson said at the meeting. “We’re trying to get to a better clientele, if you will, than what we have right now — hopefully someone that pays their rent a little better, too.”
Documents show the county approved the project and delivered the permit in January 2019.
The county ordinance from January states: “The energy produced by the solar farm would be primarily utilized by the Petitioner, however, excess energy would be sold and they would receive compensation for it. As a result, the rent for the people in the apartments would probably be lowered and therefore benefit the tenants.”
The search for state support
Derek Hiland, community development director for DeKalb County, said SA Energy was in a cohort of about 50 solar garden groups interested in the Illinois Power Agency’s Adjustable Block Program.
The Adjustable Block Program awards incentive funds to eligible community solar projects based on a lottery. The lottery’s results, released in April, show SA Energy was waitlisted.
Of all the solar gardens to come through the county, only SA Energy said it would continue with construction regardless of if it won the lottery or not, Hiland said. None of the other projects, even the ones that won the lottery, have begun construction, he said.
Instead, SA Energy applied for incentive funds from Illinois Solar for All, another program under the Illinois Power Agency. The company was waitlisted when it first applied for a community solar project in June, according to Solar for All project listings. SA Energy resubmitted as a different class in September and was accepted, according to the most updated project listings.
Solar for All
The Suburban Apartment solar farm is the only Low-income Distributed Generation project under Solar for All.
Solar for All differs from the Adjustable Block Program. Solar for All targets low-income communities by providing incentives for vendors constructing solar farms in these communities.
Laura Oakleaf, senior program manager for Solar for All, said SA Energy has been the only vendor to move forward with a distributed generation project for more than five units.
Once the solar farm is energized, SA Energy will receive $4 million in incentive funds, she said.
The Solar for All affordability agreement requires at least half of the units in the complex to stay categorized as affordable housing for five years after the beginning of the contract.
Under the Illinois Affordable Housing Act, affordable housing is any unit that has monthly costs less than 30% of the low-income limit, or 80% of the median income of the area.
Solar for All uses whole building verification for projects of Suburban’s size, according to the Approved Vendor Manual. Suburban qualifies because the tract of land it's on is a low-income tract based on census data.
Further, the program requires at least half of the solar farm’s value be passed on to residents at Suburban Apartments.
Oakleaf said this can look like a reduction in rent or guaranteed rent control for the next few years.
Robinson said all the energy from the farm connects to the electricity grid, managed by ComEd. The solar modules will pass their production to the transformer at Twombly Road and then up Annie Glidden Road to the apartment complex. ComEd will provide bill credits for the amount of energy generated by the solar farm for the month and apply it to each individual tenant’s bill, he said.
Solar for All requires SA Energy to send yearly reports verifying Suburban Apartments still charges a sufficiently low rent, Oakleaf said.
Michelle Perkins, executive director for the DeKalb Housing Authority, said 34 Housing Choice Voucher holders live at Suburban. There are 530 units total in the complex, according to the Health Department.
The Housing Authority has removed Suburban Apartments from its listings in the past, due to poor reviews it received from tenants, she said.
In a February 2018 email sent by Shan to Perkins and obtained by WNIJ via a FOIA request, Shan writes, “The manager who represented Suburban apartments has been reprimanded for making unprofessional comments regarding the section 8 vouchers and also has suggested that due to her unwilling to accept section8 residents, she delebrately made the inspection fail.”
In the same email, Shan writes, “Suburban has always been equal opportunity housing and strongly believe that we have been put on this earth by a almighty God to help each other, and I would do anything to provide housing for needy at a affordable cost.”
Robinson said the farm will begin operation in the last week of January 2020, and tenants can expect savings on their March or April bill.
Perkins said she supported the solar project early on and asked for documentation detailing how the farm will support the low-income tenants but never got an answer.
“We want solar,” she said. “We love solar, but I need to see how that affects the tenants. There should be a financial plan; there should be a dollar … to dollar tracking, [so] that I would be able to say, ‘Here’s where you are saving money — you can see it right on your statement.’”
Video editor Brandon Giesey, contributor Noah Johnson and WNIJ reporter Sarah Jesmer contributed reporting.