Chicago’s solar opportunities grow

The restaurant Uncommon Ground has five solar thermal panels that provide 10 percent of its overall energy needs.
The restaurant Uncommon Ground's five solar thermal panels on its rooftop farm provide about 10 percent of its overall energy needs.

By Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang

Listening to people talk about the beauty of having solar as their energy source, you might have your doubts.

When do you earn back your initial investment, how do you pay for the high upfront cost and what if you don’t have a house?

Challenges remain,  but things  have changed

If you know about the incentives and a newly-developed idea of sharing solar energy, going solar could be an option for many in Chicago.

The image of  solar energy got a boost recently when home and business owners in more than 130 sites across Illinois opened their doors to the public in this year’s Illinois Solar Tour.

Real Experience

“You can see that our solar panels covered 100 percent of our electricity usage,” said Lisa Elkins, an architect who lives in a two-floor condo with her husband Ron Elkins and their two daughters in Lincoln Park.

She only needed to pay $4.92 on her ComEd bill for electric use  over the period of August 9 to September 8.

Her bill benefitted from a reduction in delivery fees and lower taxes and fees because the electricity generated by the 14 solar panels on her rooftop surpassed the overall electricity consumption.

“Did you see her delivery fee?” exclaimed Suzanna Chereskin, who was among the five visitors in Elkins’ house that afternoon. “Mine was like over a hundred dollar.”

The Elkins installed the solar panels that each has a capacity of 3.9-kilowatt back in 2012. With federal tax credits, state rebates, and discounts from their manufacturers in place, the upfront cost of installing the system was massively reduced from $35,000 to $6,500, they said.

They expect the cost of the installation to be paid off this year or next year. The average number of years to recoup the cost of an installation depends on several factors such as the capacity of solar panels, and how much incentives you get.

The solar Investment Tax Credit is a 30 percent federal tax credit on residential and utility and commercial properties, which was implemented in 2006, and will be extended to 2023 with a different amount of reduction rate over time, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Unfortunately, the state of Illinois’ ratepayer rebate program is currently broken due to the state’s financial deadlock. As a result, there’s no funding within the program now. Just last year, the rebate for homeowners setting up solar panels was up to $10,000 or 25 percent of project costs.

Although the state rebate is not available now, consumers could still find funding elsewhere.

Various Incentives

Illinois currently has 79 federal, state, city-level and utilities’ financial incentives on energy efficiency and renewable energy, including programs like a tax credit, rebate, loan, grant and bond, according to DSIRE, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

DSIRE’s website has a comprehensive database that can help consumers find policies and incentives by simply entering your zip code.

In fact, the average installed cost per watt of solar electricity has fallen from over $9 in 2000 to about $3 in 2014, and it continues to fall, according to SEIA’s report.

The report also showed other positive results. The nation’s  solar installation capacity has its record-breaking year in 2015,  and increased 16 percent from 2014. Among the solar markets, California, North Carolina, Nevada, Massachusetts and New York seized the top five, while Illinois was the 26th.

Chicago has seen a little boost in solar installation last year as the city government’s bulk-purchase program began  in 2014. Around 2,100 residential and commercial property owners registered with the program, which allowed property owners to buy solar panels and other gear at a discount, the city’s former chief sustainability officer, Karen Weigert, explained to Crain’s Chicago Business last year.

However, even with financial support, switching to solar could be a hard decision for renters, residents without access to rooftops, or those whose houses do not  get much sunlight.

Yet there’s a solution for them.

Sharing Economy on Solar

Community solar allows people to subscribe to some solar panels at a host site, and that subscription would accumulate into a mid-sized installation.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for that in Chicago,” said MeLena Hessel, a policy advocate at the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, adding that there’s a large number of people who could  benefit from community solar.

Under a  Cook County Department of Environmental Control study, 45,000 rooftops in Chicago are suitable to host at least a 25-kilowatt solar electric system, along with some other parcels of vacant land or parking canopy within the city.

Although community solar is a relatively new idea, states such as Colorado and Minnesota already have established community solar programs, said Hessel, adding that Cook County officials are  pushing to make community solar work locally.

The Cook County Department of Environmental Control rolled out the Solar Market Pathways project last year, planning to develop five to seven demonstration sites to jumpstart community solar. The project received a federal cooperative award of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The current project is to study community solar, not implement it. However, some locations, once identified as good community solar candidates, may make the investment in community solar in the next year or two,” said Becky Schlikerman, spokeswoman for the Cook County Department of Environmental Control, in an email Tuesday.

Community solar not only benefits consumers for lowering the cost of entry to clean electricity with economies of scale, but also helps utilities mitigate peak demand to destress their system, and meet state’s mandates for renewable energy, Schlikerman said.

But, if the community solar is that good, why isn’t it more popular here?

“There are things that we need to work out on the policy level to make sure that people are able to participate in that [community solar] program,” Hessel said.  The rules and  the ways that utilities charge for the electricity have not yet been established, she explained.

Illinois’ first and only community solar project is located in Elizabeth, a village located in northwestern Illinois. It had 25 subscribers as of March last year.

The reason it works is that the host company, Jo-Carroll Energy, a cooperative utility, is not restricted by the same regulatory framework as ComEd, an investor-owned utility, according to Cook County’s State of Community Solar report.

Those who already benefitted from solar energy boast about their decisions.

“I really don’t have one bad thing to say about having gone through the [installation] process,” said Helen Cameron, who has 24 solar panels at home and five solar thermal panels at her restaurant, Uncommon Ground on Devon Ave.

“It does require a certain level of understanding and educating so you can make a good decision from whatever system that you want,” she said. “Make a good choice based on what you’ve learned, who you’ve met, and who you will feel most comfortable working with.”

Consider that advice, if clean energy interests you.

Photo at top: Uncommon Ground’s five solar thermal panels on the restaurant’s rooftop farm provide about 10 percent of its overall energy needs. (Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang/MEDILL)