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A Personal Journey Down the Renewable Energy Road

Part 2: Selecting a Solar Energy System -

"Walking the Walk"

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In a previous article, I wrote on how the economy and the environment are inseparable and how developing a new clean energy based economy is a huge economic development opportunity.

As an environmentalist, but more importantly, a parent and grandparent, I feel an obligation that if I’m going to “talk the talk” I need to “walk the walk.” To that end I have begun a project to transition one small slice of the world,  my home, to new clean energy. I felt It was the right thing to do. I also felt a bit guilty because as an American, I am among the worst CO2 emitters on the planet. My children already face the certainty of a massive clean up and a difficult adaptation to climate change.

I used to believe that I would need to spend a lot of money to do this and perhaps never see a break-even point, but now I believe I will be realizing the benefits much sooner than expected. Regardless, I couldn’t place a price on my children’s future. . . . So, let’s start at the beginning.

First, before I even called in a contractor, I read up on the basic building blocks of solar systems. They are not terribly complex, but there are some different options to consider. Simply put, the system consists of collectors (there are different options here both is size and design), inverters (collectors generate DC electricity that needs to be converted to AC, again a couple options to consider), mounting hardware, wiring and conduits. I also added a communications gateway so that I could see the output of my system via an ethernet connection to my PC and to a website for remote monitoring and analysis. All in all it is pretty basic. The big decision is how many panels and where to locate them on your home or property.

Next, I solicited bids for a “PV System” Solar Photovoltaic System. Basically, solar options consist of solar panels (PV) that will generate electricity and thermal solar panels for heating water. A great 3 minute video primer on solar can be viewed here.

As with any home improvement project, you should take the basic precautions of selecting your contractor carefully and thoroughly educating yourself before signing on the dotted line. Thankfully there are several reputable and experienced firms available.  The criteria I used in selecting the supplier were the following:

  • The system should be properly designed to fit my site and to maximize benefits to me.
  • All equipment should be from a reputable manufacturer and must qualify as "Manufactured in USA".
  • I should be given plenty of hand-holding throughout the project including details of the process required for interconnections, permitting, and renewable energy credit generation and sale.
  • The supplier should have adequate experience and good references.
  • The pricing should be competitive (though it need not be the lowest).

 

After accepting bids from reputable contractors, I found one company that fit all of my criteria. They listened to me and understood all my concerns and wanted to supply me with what I wanted rather than with what they wanted.

In addition to the system, I needed to obtain a building permit, costs will vary based on the specific town. Palatine, IL only requires a standard building permit at a cost to me of $428. The permit required that I submit engineering calculations verifying that my roof will support the weight of the system. An engineering firm was hired to perform this calculation at a cost of $750. Commonwealth Edison also required an application for interconnection and net metering. Total cost was $50. My contractor coordinated all of this for me.

Here is a description of my system. I’m fortunate to have a home well suited for solar (see my home in the picture above.) The back faces straight south, with little shading, and plenty of roof space to accommodate my needs. My system consists of twenty eight 240 watt panels with micro inverters (one inverter per panel).  Total output is 6.72 kilowatts.  This is a large size system for a home.  My 4,000 square foot home averages 900 kilowatt hours per month, and the system should deliver about 80% of my current demand. I under-sized the system by 20% for 2 reasons. First, I believe I can continue to reduce my electricity consumption through efficiency measures and second, and this is unfortunate, net metering rules will not compensate me for electricity I produce in excess of what I use.  What is net metering?  In simplest terms, when I generate electricity and don’t use it I will feed it to the grid and my meter will go backwards. When I call for electricity in excess of what I am producing, like at night, my meter will run forward. I pay the net difference, if there is one at the end of the month. If I have delivered more than I have used, these credits roll over to the next month. But here is the kicker, at the end of a 12 month period, the rolling over stops and I start from zero again. So I have no incentive to produce more than I will use in a year since this would just mean providing free energy to a utility which will then sell it at full value. Fortunately, there is state legislation pending to remedy this limitation.

Finally, I should be eligible to sell RECs (Renewable Energy Credits). This was something I didn’t know anything about until well into the process and it was a pleasant surprise. For every megawatt of energy produced I generate I will own one REC. My system should generate 8 RECs per year. This is a little tricky to explain but a REC is a “certificate” tied to the environmental benefits of a renewable energy system. You might call them the “bragging rights” to clean energy. If someone who is trying to meet renewable energy mandates or goals wants to secure this claim without having a renewable energy system they can buy RECs. While I get the energy and savings, if I sell my RECs I cannot claim the environmental benefits, the purchaser now has that right.  But I know these benefits are there and I get all the financial benefits so I’m happy to part with these certificates which may net me between $200 to $300 each.    

All in all, with the help of a contractor who managed the permitting and interconnection details, the process was not complicated. There was some added cost but it was not prohibitive. There is an opportunity to simplify things even further and there is pending state legislation to address some of these deficiencies. We should feel proud to live in a state that is progressive regarding renewable energy. Currently Illinois has received a grade of B from an independent study of current state policies regarding net metering and interconnections. If this new legislation is passed, Illinois should move to an A grade in both these categories(1). This makes our state a more attractive place in which to live and do business.  

In the next piece that I write, I will concentrate on the economics of my system.  But keep in mind the benefits I am generating in addition to my personal financial gains. First, I have created a good size job for a local contractor. Second, I am purchasing equipment all of which is manufactured in the USA. This is generating domestic job growth. Third, my energy dollars are staying in this country. Fourth, since my “fuel” is free and not controlled by any company or country I do not face inflationary or fluctuating energy costs or the threat of having this source shut off or held hostage.  This is beneficial to national and personal security. 

– by Peter Gorr

– Photo by Peter Gorr

 

(1.) Freeing the Grid, Best Practices in State Net Metering Policies and Interconnection Procedures, December 2010, Network for New Energy Choices, New York, NY.

About the author: Peter Gorr lives in Palatine, IL and is a husband, parent, and grandparent. He is a retired business executive and holds a MBA from the University of Chicago in Marketing and Statistics. He is on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club NW Cook County Group and an active member of Illinois Solar Energy Association.

Back to Main Articles

 

Click Here To Read Part 1.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

 

Click Here To Read Part 3.

The Glitter of Gold

 

Click Here To Read Part 4.

So What Have I Learned?

 

". . . As with any home improvement project, you should take the basic precautions of educating yourself first, and selecting your contractor carefully . . . . I found one company that fit all of my criteria. They listened to me and understood all my concerns"

 

". . . For every megawatt of energy I generate, I will own one REC (Renewable Energy Credits) . . . A system this size can generate 6 to 8 RECs every year, which can net me between $200 to $300 each, per year."

 

 

The Gorrs recently installed one of the largest residential solar electrical systems in Illinois — almost 7 kilowatts. Cost for the system: $47,378 including all permits and connections. But, thanks to state and federal tax credits and rebates, their true out-of-pocket cost for the system will only be approximately $19,000 and it comes with a 25-year warranty.

More about the cost, rebates and savings in Part 3.

 

Peter was recently interviewed by "The Daily Herald" about his Solar Panel installation - read the article here

 

 

| ©2014 Northwest Cook County Group of the Illinois Sierra Club |