Going solar: Sun’s rays another resource to tap

On top of Rockford Lutheran High School lies a large industrial device. Hot, black, and made of squares and angles, the structure sticks out like a charcoal appendage from the roof of the otherwise conservative building. But what is this construction?

To answer that question, we must venture into the classroom of Trey Fisk. Mr. Fisk, as he is to his students, instructs physics I and II at the school. Over the past year, Fisk’s students have been tracking the energy collected by that apparently tumorous protuberance, the solar panel array. In fact, that energy provides much of the light for his classroom.

“Part of our having them is addressing that mysticism,” said Donald Kortze, Lutheran’s principal.

The Illinois Clean Energy Foundation provided a $10,000 grant to finance the project. The cells generate a little more than 1,000 kilowatts of power, enough to provide light to the 15 fluorescent light fixtures in the room with supplement power from the Com Ed grid. Adding a battery to store excess or unused energy is an option, as is adding wind turbine power.

When the structure first appeared, it generated interest in students and parents. However, after collecting data from the device for a few semesters, it became much more benign. Parents applauded the school for raising alternative energy awareness in the students. For the budding scholars themselves, the protuberance doesn’t quite offer the same enigma. A good thing, Kortze said.

“After a while, it’s so passive and unobtrusive that it comes to be less of a spectacle,” Kortze said. Solar energy becomes commonplace. He noted that some of the innovations used at Lutheran High will be employed a little bit farther south, in the construction at Sinnissippi Park, near the Rock River.

Wal-Mart plans to go solar. Schools, such as Rockford Lutheran, are going solar. Businesses are going solar. And as utility costs continue to climb, more and more homes may be heading that way as well.

Solar energy comes in two distinct flavors: the solar thermal used for water, and solar electric for power, such as the lights in Fisk’s classroom. At home, thermal energy is the first choice, according to Brandon Leavitt of Solar Service, Inc., who installed his first thermal system in July 1977.

With two 4- by 8-foot arrays, a system can generate 20,000 gallons of hot water in a year, 70 percent of a year’s supply of hot water for a family of four at today’s energy costs, Leavitt said. A solar heating system can work for more than 30 years, to boot.

“That’s at today’s energy costs, let alone tomorrow’s,” he added.

Indeed, utility costs are a bugbear of many families, explained Mark Burger, president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. Baby boomers are heading into retirement and are looking toward a fixed income, he said. With continued increase in heat and power costs, they are starting to look at something a bit more constant, such as the sun.

“Utility costs are the trigger that will get people immediately concerned,” Burger said. If trends continue, gasoline, natural gas and electricity costs will continue to grow, but no one has put a price on that big, bright orb in the sky yet.

The up-front cost of a home array can be daunting, though.

“The biggest problem is they’re making a four- or five-figure investment for something they’re used to renting,” Burger said. When one considers going solar, it should be thought of as a home improvement, he added. According to Burger, the costs look a lot smaller, even without government incentives that can cut a $6,000 or $8,000 asking price in half.

“When you start looking at it that way, it gets a lot less scary,” Burger said. After installation, a family could start saving $300-$400 a year, compared to a heating bill.

This is all good news, but there is still a matter of access. The first steps to acquiring a home system include collecting information online and in workshops, rather than being able to walk into a given home improvement store.

“In Illinois, it’s still a specialty market,” Burger said. “You can’t go to your plumber or Home Depot for a thermal system.”

For solar power to become more widely available, the government will have to provide a system of incentives more akin to those in Germany or Japan, Burger said. The American system is a “hodge-podge” of state and federal incentives comparatively.

As for now, the solar market is like the hybrid car market, a field for the early adopter, Burger said. For the intrepid consumer, the sun’s rays can be another resource to tap.

“It’s falling on your property for a purpose,” Leavitt said, “so why not use it?”

from the May 30-June 5, 2007, issue

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