If you’re considering adding solar energy to your home, now may be a good time to do it. Solar panel prices are low because demand slumped after the financial crisis of 2008, when the renewables industry was booming in Japan, Germany, Spain and California. Surplus panels piled up in warehouses and prices dropped as a result.
What’s more, solar insiders predict prices will soon be rising because Illinois law requires utilities to include solar in their power mix starting in 2012. Most utilities have been fulfilling the law’s renewable energy quota with wind farm energy, but they must begin ramping up solar sources until they reach six percent of power from solar by the year 2015. “If people get in now, they can do it before prices go up,” says Bob Croteau, who leads workshops on renewable energy at Lincoln Land Community College.
Homeowners usually choose renewable technology for the environmental benefits, but Michelle Marley, owner of WindSolarUSA in Owaneco, Ill., says it also makes sense on a purely economic basis. In a time of escalating utility prices, she says, “what you’re really doing with a renewable system is fixing your energy costs” for 20 to 25 years – the life of the system. “You know what you’re paying, you know what it’s going to give you.”
Croteau sees it as an investment that will pay for itself over time, as long as homeowners avoid scammers selling useless products. “We suffered through scams in the early 80s when renewable energy was hot,” he recalls. “Companies were quickly formed to sell stuff that wasn’t well researched or designed for this climate, and they overpriced it to take advantage of the tax credit.”
Croteau and Marley spoke with Illinois Times about some of the best green technologies for Illinois homeowners and what to watch out for.
Solar swimming pool heating. This is a good option for homeowners who want to dip their toe into renewables before jumping in. Your pool’s filter pump can be hooked up to circulate water through a black solar mat. Just roll it out flat and attach it to the roof, house deck, or side of the pool. If you heat your pool, you can save all your heating costs for an investment of $500 to $2,000. Croteau, an energy planner with City Water Light & Power, says it’s “the most cost-efficient thing you can do.” If you don’t heat your pool, the solar mat will extend pool use by a month in spring and another month in fall.
Solar hot water heating. Croteau calls this “a really tried and true” technology that can supply about half your water heating year-round. You don’t need to replace your current water heater. Just add another 80- to 100-gallon electric water tank to store the solar-heated water and connect it to your current heater where cold city water normally goes in. Less power will be required to keep your water hot as a result. Antifreeze flows through the solar collector and transfers its heat to the water in the storage tank via a heat exchanger. For easier maintenance, the heat exchanger can be mounted on the wall above the tanks with two small pumps. One pump circulates cold city water to the heat exchanger for warming and then into the storage tank, and in a separate loop, the other pumps antifreeze through the solar collector and down to the heat exchanger. If you don’t get enough sun on your roof, you can put collectors on the ground or on an awning with this system.
If you can put a collector on your roof, a more efficient option is to let the fluid fall back down into the storage tank at night or whenever the pump shuts off. This so-called drainback system requires the least maintenance of any solar hot water design, typically running 20 years with no service.
With two flat plate solar collectors (enough for a family of four), a solar hot water system would cost anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000, including installation. Croteau estimates the system will pay for itself in 5 to 10 years.
A recent addition to the market is evacuated tube collectors, which are more efficient than flat plate collectors. Instead of copper tubes running across a flat plate that absorbs the sun’s heat, the fluid lines are surrounded by a vacuum, resulting in virtually no heat loss. They can heat fluids to higher temperatures than flat plate collectors, and any excess energy can be easily applied to heating bathroom and kitchen floors in winter. Evacuated tube technology performs better in cold weather than flat plate, so would be an advantage in Illinois winters. A two-panel system using evacuated tube technology costs $5,000 to $6,000.
Of course, costs would be lower if you can get by with one panel rather than two. Low-flow showerheads and lather valves that pause the water while soaping and shampooing can cut water usage in half, Croteau notes.
Solar hot air collectors. Jan Kessinger has had one of these on his house near Lake Springfield since the early 1980s. Three 4-by-6-foot panels hanging on the south wall of his house include a black absorber plate that warms air piped in from a bedroom. A small fan drives the solar-heated air into his basement, where it rises to heat the entire house. When he and his wife migrate to warmer climes for three months in winter, it provides all the heating needed to prevent the house from freezing. “I should have put one in 20 years earlier,” Kessinger says. “They pay for themselves.”
Their vertical orientation on the outside wall of a house puts the collectors at a good angle for the low Illinois sun in winter, Croteau notes. Furthermore, reflection off snow will increase the sunlight reaching them. You can put up one collector or more depending on your needs. One collector will heat 500 square feet during daytime and generate 5 million BTUs over the winter season.
You can buy a solar hot air collector for $1,000 to $2,000, or make one yourself for $400 using Croteau’s booklet, Do-It-Yourself Solar Hot Air Collectors, available from CWLP. They don’t qualify for the federal tax credit, but they pay back their cost in two to five years. Marley recommends them for warehouses or barns rather than homes because of fan noise. Croteau says a good fan makes no more noise than a furnace or refrigerator.
Solar electricity. Photovoltaics are the premier solar technology because they generate electricity, which means they can power your kitchen appliances, computers and air conditioning. They also have the advantage of performing best during Illinois summers when electrical usage is at its peak due to air conditioning. The sun shines 70 percent of the time during our summers, as compared to 30 percent during winter. And photovoltaic panels are practically maintenance-free. “The worst you’re going to have to do is brush snow off it in the winter, or hose it off if it gets dust on it in the summer,” says Marley.
There are two main kinds of photovoltaic cells – crystalline and amorphous, or thin film. Crystalline cells are the “workhorse of the industry,” Croteau says. “The ones that were installed 25 years ago are still working.” Most panels are guaranteed for 25 years, but they can operate much longer at slightly reduced output. Amorphous cells are cheaper, but more are required to produce the same amount of electricity, so the mounting costs are higher. As a result, no matter what technology is chosen, “solar ends up being the same cost per watt,” Croteau says. Most residential systems cost between $8,000 and $24,000, but will pay for themselves in 10 to 15 years.
To ensure good results, it’s important to get a professional assessment of your site for solar access. Unlike other solar technologies, photovoltaic panels don’t generate electricity unless the sun is shining on the entire panel. So your site’s solar access from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. is critical in determining whether photovoltaics will benefit you. If your roof has too much shading or doesn’t have a south-facing slope, Marley says you can put solar panels on a garage roof, the ground or even a solar shed placed on an unshaded portion of property, with all controls concealed inside the shed.
Professional site assessors use a solar pathfinder tool, which gives a 360-degree image of the shading at a particular spot superimposed over gridlines of the sun’s path throughout the day and the year. A photograph of the shaded gridlines can be downloaded into a software program that calculates the total amount of sunlight the location receives over the year. A Google satellite image of your property, along with a shot from the south, can also tell site assessors whether it’s suitable for solar.
Marley says solar power got a bad name in the 1970s because people who weren’t qualified got into the business. “Some of the site assessors who came in in the early 1980s would put solar panels anywhere,” adds Croteau, even in total winter shading. This time around, training courses across the country are turning out certified professionals to prevent a repeat of the past. Marley received her certification from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in Wisconsin, which offers the best training in the country outside California. The first thing a certified professional will do is make sure the house is as energy efficient as possible to minimize the size and expense of the renewable system required.
Croteau also cautions people to be wary of cheap solar photovoltaics from China. “Chicago Electric is one brand,” he says. “It sells a 145-watt solar panel kit that just runs a couple of light bulbs. It’s totally made in China, but they use a Chicago name to make it sound American.” And he says flexible photovoltaic laminates that can be attached to roof shingles, which are the latest fad, are overpriced.
Wind generators. “Ideally you’d have both wind and solar, if you could,” says Croteau, noting that wind can supply electricity as solar photovoltaics do, and they complement each other weatherwise. But most people, especially in town, don’t have good wind access. “If you don’t get your wind generator up high enough, the turbulence from the surrounding structures and trees are going to just tear it up and you’re going to have a maintenance headache.” A height of 100 feet is the “sweet spot” for wind generators because that’s where the wind is steady.
He considers many generators on the market with 30-foot towers useless “toys” that only spin in all directions. Wind generators on vertical axes, which have recently become popular, are also nothing but “lawn ornaments.” Furthermore, “anyone trying to sell you a wind generator to mount on your roof – that’s a hangup call,” he warns, pointing out that it will transmit vibrations through the house and possibly damage the roof.
Springfield city ordinance requires wind towers to be at least 25 feet from any structure and Sangamon County mandates they be at least 110 percent of their height from buildings and property lines. So you’d have to have a lot of space to accommodate one. Croteau recommends buying a proven wind generator, such as the 20 kW Jacobs on a 100-foot tower or the 10 kW Bergey on an 80-foot tower. Wind generators including installation start at $16,500 for 1 kW and $60,000 for 10kW.
Avoid buying cheap systems online. “If you get something cheap, it probably is,” Croteau says. “Low-cost wind is much harder to find than low-cost solar.”
Smaller options. If the expense of these systems is too much for you after taking the federal tax credit, state rebate, and grants into consideration, you could start even smaller with a $100-$250 passive solar oven. When it’s too hot in the kitchen in summer, you can bake outside using the power of the sun streaming into the glass window of the oven. The ovens typically heat to 350 degrees and cook rice in an hour and a half or a turkey in five hours.
You could also add a sunspace or greenhouse to the south side of your house to incorporate passive solar energy into your home. Or simply add or enlarge windows on the south side. And there are many more options for people building a new home, such as passive solar features like clerestory windows and thermal walls. There are a multitude of ways to let the sun shine in.
Karen Fitzgerald is a freelance writer living in Pleasant Plains. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Legislature depletes green incentive
Illinois is one of only 22 states that offer a rebate on renewable technology for homeowners. It has one of the better programs, returning 30 percent of product and installation costs for both wind and solar, including pool heating. But the rebate was available for only five weeks last fall before funding ran out for the current (2011) fiscal year. Out of 300 applications, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity paid rebates amounting to $1.5 million to less than 130 applicants, according to Marcelyn Love, DCEO spokesperson.
The rebate fund, which comes from an assessment customers pay on their utility bills, has been raided every year since 2008 by the Illinois General Assembly to pay the state’s debts. The legislature took $5 million from the fund in 2008 and more than $13 million in 2009.
“When the state quit giving incentives, it kind of shut the whole industry down around here,” says Rich Marsaglia of Haenig Electric Company. Based in Springfield since 1904, the company just began handling commercial solar projects a year ago, installing solar panels on FitClub South and Southwind Park’s visitor center.
The rebate should be available again at some point in the next fiscal year on a first-come, first-served basis. But CWLP customers don’t qualify for it because city-owned CWLP isn’t required to charge the assessment.
Still, there are other incentives available, beginning with the 30 percent federal tax credit. See a full listing on the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency website www.dsireusa.org.
Recommended consultants and vendors for central Illinois
Courtesy of Bob Croteau, CWLP energy planner
PO Box 168, Owaneco, IL 62555
Michelle Marley 217-825-4206
Advanced Energy Solutions
186 & 192 Gates Rd., Pomona, IL 62975
Aur Beck 618-893-1717
524 Summit St., Geneva, IL 60134
Tom DeBates 630-262-8193
The Root Cellar
2807 University, Suite 127,
Muscatine, Iowa 52761
John Root 563-590-8566
Mid America Advanced Power Solutions
18 Ednick Dr., Swansea, IL 62226
Jason Hark 618-540-9313
139 Perene Ave., Byron, IL 61010
Dave Merrill 815-262-2831
2820 Chicago Rd., Compton, IL 61318
Dale Balder 815-631-2970
Upcoming renewable energy events
“The best way to shop for solar is to go to a renewable energy fair,” Croteau advises. About 25,000 people attend Wisconsin’s Midwest Renewable Energy Association fair every year. It has workshops to help people decide what they need, and vendors exhibiting their products. Closer to home, he also recommends the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair upstate, where he will be leading a workshop on building a solar hot air collector. A similar workshop is being planned for summer or fall at LLCC.
Midwest Renewable Energy Association Energy Fair
Custer, Wis. - June 17-19
Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair
Oregon, Ill. - Aug. 13-14
Lincoln Land Community College Renewable Options for Homeowners Series
taught by Bob Croteau
May 4 (solar thermal), 18 (solar electric) and April 1 (wind)
Another source of information on renewable technologies is Home Power magazine, www.homepower.com