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Fui Tsikata/Medill

Hamsa Ramesha/Medill

Learn  more about solar thermal, photovoltaic and passive solar energy systems.

Illinois advances in solar energy

by Hamsa Ramesha and Fui Tsikata
Oct 08, 2008


Hamsa Ramesha/Medill

A solar panel sits on the roof of Mike Holzer's home. Holzer has a solar thermal system that heats his  water.


Fui Tsikata/Medill



Fui Tsikata/Medill



Fui Tsikata/Medill


Hamsa Ramesha/Medill



Hamsa Ramesha/Medill


Illinois is seeing an increase in home and business solar power installations, encouraged by state and federal incentives.

While the market for solar powered energy remains mostly on the west coast, Illinois is not far behind. Especially in Chicago, homeowners and businesses are increasingly turning to solar power.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity sponsors a Solar Energy Rebate Program that reimburses for as much as 30 percent of solar project costs up to $10,000, for photovoltaic and solar thermal systems, said Wayne Hartel, an energy program specialist with the department.

“In the last two years we’ve allocated approximately a million dollars,” Hartel said.

According to Hartel, the department receives about 160 to 190 rebate applications per year, most of them related to solar thermal systems, used for heating.  However, what used to be a 60-40 split in favor of solar thermal systems is now the opposite – photovoltaic power systems are gaining popularity, Hartel said.

For example, in fiscal year 2005, rebates went to 74 projects--22 photovoltaic systems and 52 solar thermal systems, according to IDCEO statistics. But in fiscal year 2008, which ended June 30, rebates went to 165 projects--88 photovoltaic and 76 solar thermal. So far in the current fiscal year 110 rebate applications have been received.

At the national level, solar energy is also gaining momentum. The passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 on Oct. 3 renewed a tax credit for solar investments by eight years. The bill also removed the $2,000 cap for residents with solar installations.

As if state and national incentives aren’t enough, investor-owned utilities such as Exelon Corp. subsidiary Commonwealth Edison Co. are honoring “net metering agreements” said Pam Anton, a spokeswoman for ComEd. The program rewards customers who have solar or wind systems that generate electricity.

“If they use energy beyond what they need, it basically becomes credit towards the next month,” Anton said.

ComEd began its net metering program in April, and currently has 62 customers: 52 with photovoltaic systems, 13 with wind systems and three with both, said Anton. Because the system is hooked up to the power grid, the meter is able to turn backward based on the amount of electricity produced.

The current tax credits are valid for both thermal and photovoltaic solar systems.

Mike Holzer, a Chicago homeowner, installed a solar thermal hot water system in 2004. The total cost came to about $9,000, with the state of Illinois picking up 30 percent of that, in addition to $2,000 from federal tax credits. This left Holzer with an out-of-pocket cost of approximately $4,500.

“Not a lot of bells and whistles, pretty simple,” Holzer said.

Holzer is also planning to install radiant floor heat for the second floor, and expects to complete the process in two years. This would require an additional solar panel and possibly a larger tank.

The solar thermal system has cut down Holzer’s natural gas bills by as much as 70 percent in the summer. In the winter, solar energy offsets his natural gas heating bill by 20 percent.

Holzer said he and his wife, Amy Odgers, were “concerned about our budget, our bottom line” and are thinking about investing in a photovoltaic system. However, he said, solar thermal has the capacity to generate three times the energy of a photovoltaic system for the same price.

Holzer contracted with Solar Services Inc., of Niles, Ill. for his solar hot water system. Solar Services estimates solar hot water systems alone save $300 annually, while heat and hot water systems can save about $600 annually.

Photovoltaics, on the other hand, do produce electricity and benefit from net metering agreements with companies like ComEd.

Howard Alan, owner of Howard Alan Architects, is in the process of building a 1,500 square foot “zero energy house” in Rockford that will be outfitted with photovoltaic and geothermal systems. This will potentially allow the residents to produce as much electricity as they consume, completely offsetting their electricity bill.

Photovoltaic energy systems cost an average of $12,000 to $18,000 per kilowatt, according to data from Solar Services Inc. The price goes down per kilowatt installed. For example, a two kilowatt system will need 10 panels and costs about $30,000. After tax credits and incentives, the total out-of-pocket cost is $19,000.

But Alan is a proponent of a less common form of solar energy, passive solar. This includes techniques like better insulation and strategic building development, such that solar energy is captured by the roof, walls and windows.

In 1992, Alan began construction on his Chicago office building so that it would be outfitted to retain heat and comply with passive solar energy guidelines. These features are aimed to reduce fossil fuel usage by 50 percent when compared to conventional construction, he said. Alan continues to modify and make adjustments on his home to this day.

“It harvests the sun and makes use of it,” Alan said. “We want the architecture to have a task to do that helps us continue to recognize the relationship we have with the planet.”

However, despite the effectiveness of passive solar, there is no government incentive or tax credit currently in place. With other systems, there is a base cost for a solar panel, or a wind turbine – not so for passive solar.

“The problem with it is that those who issue the rebate really don’t have an idea of how to calculate what the rebate should be with the passive solar building,” Alan said.

He estimates that on average, the construction cost for any building is about $200 per square foot, with an increase of 10 percent to 25 percent for passive solar features. 

Even a prominent wind energy company is increasingly interested in solar projects as well.  Bil Becker, CEO and president of Aerotecture International Inc., of Chicago, said, “Chicago is unique in that we have high wind and low sun. And then we have the reverse in summer; we have very high sun with low wind.”