As fuel prices continue to climb, consumers—including real estate developers and building administrators—are looking for alternative ways to power their buildings while saving money. Solar power is one possible option for such consumers, but issues of practicality and expense have made it a stretch when it comes to workable energy alternatives. It’s been almost forty years since Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels at the White House, hoping to lead by example. The thirty years that followed saw no decline in the steep price tag of solar technology. But the last ten have been different. Now, the incentives for converting to solar thermal are not just about the environment, but economic in nature.
“’Solar’ means different things to different people,” says Brandon Leavitt, president of Solar Service Inc. in Niles. “Up until five years ago, every solar project was hot water. That’s the most economical use of solar power.” But now, he says, solar electricity is also an option. “We like to differentiate: solar thermal or solar electric.” Either way, many buildings are becoming wise to its advantages.
Leavitt estimates that there are already hundreds of residential buildings in Chicago that are using solar power, either thermal, electric or both. While some are new developments, and were designed that way, many if not most were retrofitted to make way for solar.
“The great majority of buildings,” says Susanne Fischer-Quinn, head of corporate communications for Mage Solar USA, “that are equipped with solar are retrofitted. Since there are extremely reliable mounting options available (high wind resistance, low ballasted, and even non-perforating), this ‘retrofit solar option’ is actually also a good way to protect the current roof structure.” In other words, the solar panels on the roof serve more than one function.
While there are plenty of options available, “most of the time, the panels go on the roof,” says Leavitt. Residential buildings, which typically have flat roofs, lend themselves well to deployment of solar panels. As to the frequently-asked question, Will the solar panels damage the roof, the answer is a resounding NO. “We use a system that allows the roof to be maintained without interference,” he says. “The panels are elevated.”
“Solar is extremely flexible, scalable, has no moving parts, and zero emissions. If a specific roof is not a practical options (e.g. due to shading, roof orientation) a ground mount, canopy, awning or tracker might be a sensible solution,” says Fischer-Quinn.
The biggest obstacle of an older building going solar is not the panels, but the hot water tanks. Because the sun comes out only during the day, that is the only time when energy can be harvested (the panels work when it’s cloudy or raining, by the way, although they only collect half the energy). Even when it’s cold, the panels can top 300 degrees, Leavitt says. But hot water use in a building spikes in the morning and in the evening. To account for that disparity, water is heated and kept hot in 500-gallon water tanks, which are typically much bigger than the ones commonly found in a boiler room. Bigger buildings may require several of these.
Solar power is not absolute. Just as a car that runs on veggie oil requires some diesel fuel to make it work, back-up energy sources are required.
“Some owners chose a battery back-up system to be independent of grid outages. Besides greatly reduced (or in some cases even eliminated) energy costs, solar owners support the grid with clean, 100% renewable energy that is available every day of the year (except, of course, on extremely cloudy days),” says Fischer-Quinn.
The first step in installing a solar panel system is to determine the needs of the building, as well as its space restrictions. The second is about the money.
Solar probably costs less than you think. Prices have gone down tremendously in the last decade, and once the installation costs are recouped, the energy savings can be enormous.
“Depending on the size, a solar array can offset up to 100% of the residents’ energy needs, creating a net zero building,” says Fischer-Quinn. “Solar arrays can be sized specifically to the needs and financial possibilities of the owners, e.g. a few solar panels can generate enough power to shave of the highest energy consumption (like AC usage in the summer months or electric heating in the winter) or a bigger percentage of the energy usage.” And over time, it pays for itself. “Solar arrays have an amortization rate of 5-7 years for most homeowners, and after the system is paid off, they can enjoy free energy for more than a generation.”
Those start-up costs have gone way down. “The prices for solar modules alone have dropped 70-80% in the last 3-4 years, making reliable solar technology available more than ever before,” says Fischer-Quinn. “There are also attractive ‘starter options’ available, for example plug-and-play technology AC modules that are installed in less time (almost 50% faster), reducing the overall cost of the install.”
According to the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, operated and funded by the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University, with support from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. and the U.S. Department of Energy, this is what’s on offer in the Chicagoland area: “The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) is offering grants for community-scale solar and wind projects located in Illinois. Eligible businesses can apply for up to 30% of project costs for solar thermal and wind and 25% for solar PV, and government and nonprofit entities can apply for up to 40% of project costs.”
Leavitt is more blunt. “In Illinois, you get 60 percent back,” he says—half from the state and half from the federal government.
“The federal ITC grant ensures a 30% tax credit at least until the end of 2016,” says Fischer-Quinn. “There is a multitude of other grants and credits available, from the USDA to some energy providers offering various energy programs.”
Solar power is also a useful sales tool. A recent California study from the Berkeley National Laboratory shows that home values increase by an average of 10% if they are equipped with a medium-size solar system, Fischer-Quinn says.
In short, the economic argument for going solar is quite convincing.
Solar technology is not exactly novel. “It’s been around in the U.S. for a hundred years,” Leavitt says, “but it’s really improved since the 70s,” when President Carter brought it to the nation’s attention. “It’s a glass box that heats up in the sun,” he explains.
While the bottom line has improved, those shopping for solar systems are advised to remember the maxim You get what you pay for. “It’s important to note though that price is not everything, just like with a car,” says Fischer-Quinn. “If consumers want to be able to rely on their own ‘power plant’ on the roof, cheaper is not always better and longer warranties from a reputable manufacturer are advisable.”
So what are the benefits of solar power? The green ones are obvious. Energy from the sun is much cleaner than electricity from a power plant. But there’s more to it than that.
It’s “clean, renewable energy at a lower cost than most utilities will charge,” says Fischer-Quinn. “Many home owners are also attracted by the benefit of being independent form rate spikes and by locking in to a long-term energy rate for up to three decades.”
And the drawbacks? “None!” she says. Many consumers have already hopped on the solar-powered bandwagon, which has driven down costs, which has made more consumers jump on the bandwagon. “More and more architects are beginning to conceive buildings with energy efficiency options and LEED standards in mind, so we will see more and more ‘solar homes’ and offices in the future,” she says.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.