Workshop shows how to install solar panels

Eighteen people gathered Saturday, May 19, at 1230 E. Honey Creek Road in Oregon, Ill., for a solar photovoltaic (PV) workshop sponsored by the Illinois Renewable Energy Association. The instructor, Dave Merrill of SunAir Systems, explained the benefits of solar power as a renewable resource and showed the group how to install a 1-kilowatt solar panel system.

“We’re slowly building a really nice network of people who use energy-saving resources,” said Dr. Robert Vogl, president of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and host of the gathering. “I think this is the largest group we’ve had.”

Merrill talked with the group for about two hours—introducing the equipment types, production costs and long-term benefits—of solar panel installation. After a short lunch, for another two hours, Merrill helped the group actually assemble a PV system that could be practical for residential use. Merrill, who also installs larger systems for schools and businesses, said the six-panel system the group worked on costs about $10,000, including all the electrical components to tie the system to the power grid.

Ray Smoot, an electrical contractor for RDS Electric, came to the workshop because he noticed an increasing demand for renewable energy and wanted hands-on experience with its installation.

“Customers are wanting to do green. The whole concept of green is big right now,” Smoot said.

The assembly process turned out to be relatively easy. Merrill separated his students into two groups: The “solar-panel module team” connected the wiring of six, 175 watt, monocrystalline panels—capable of producing about 1,000 watts—to a combiner box that connects the panels to the remaining components. The “electrical team” connected those components—a d.c. disconnect box, a 2,000-watt inverter, an outside a.c. disconnect box and a circuit breaker box.

Merrill prefers monocrystalline solar modules because he says they are more efficient in full sunlight than polycrystalline or amorphous panels.

The groups alternated between hooking up the panels and electronics, while some shared stories of previous experiences with electricity. A few members wore sunglasses to protect their eyes from the same power that was going to make this system work.

About two hours later, the completed system produced 232 to 238 watts of power.

“There are a lot of pieces to it, but the assembly is really simple,” Merrill said. “Just about anyone can do it.” Despite his optimism, real safety issues require professional training and experience.

Merrill also discussed the state and federal rebate programs that provide tax credit for people who apply. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Illinois solar rebate covers 30 percent of the cost of a solar heat or power system, to a maximum of $10,000 for a $30,000 system. A 30 percent federal tax credit up to $2,000 for the installation of residential solar electric and solar water heating systems is also available.

Another benefit is similar to net metering—where ComEd pays the homeowner for power from the PV system sent to the grid that the home is not using at the time.

Solar equipment is available through a number of distributors that can be found easily on the Internet. Unless one is a registered electrician or a graduate of a training course, a homeowner should hire a contractor to handle project design and installation.

Both Merrill and Vogl said they expect this industry to grow because of increasing electrical costs, environmental concerns and political reasons.

“That’s the thing high energy prices do,” Vogl said. “They cause people to change their behavior.”

Contact the Illinois Renewable Energy Association for other upcoming training programs at

from May 23-29, 2007, issue

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