Developing a community energy plan

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Over the years IREA has had success stimulating individuals to upgrade insulation, employ energy efficiency and install solar and wind systems. We have also had some success in motivating public officials to install geothermal systems in public buildings such as courthouses, libraries, schools, park districts and environmental centers.

During the recent solar tour, one couple described their plans to build an energy efficient home which includes the use of solar energy and a geothermal system. They prefer to have their electrical connection underground; it was estimated to cost $35,000 for a half mile of buried power line. They decided they would rather use their money to invest in an off-grid system. This will be somewhat unique as most investors in renewable energy systems prefer to remain grid connected.

While our home system remains grid connected we do have a small battery pack to provide service if the grid goes down. Our utility service has proven very reliable and on only one occasion we had to rely on battery power for about three hours. If solar and battery prices continue to fall and electric prices rise, backup battery systems could gain acceptance.

During the past few years of the Renewable Energy and Sustainability Fair keynote speakers have promoted the concept of communities’ investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy as an economic development strategy. Our interest in locally focused efforts stems from a successful project in the small town of Osage, Iowa. Stressing energy efficiency and high insulation levels in buildings produced an annual savings of over $1 million per year in the town of roughly 4,000 people.

Paul Fenn of Local Power, Inc. advocated that communities should consider strategies to increase municipal and individual energy production from clean energy sources. Bob Dixson, Mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, described how his town focused on rebuilding as a model of sustainability relying on energy efficiency and local production after a tornado destroyed 95 percent of their buildings. John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance spoke on the benefits of local power production. Chris Ball of Bloomfield, Iowa, discussed their effort to become energy independent by using energy efficiency and renewable energy sources as a means to rebuild the local economy.

Our focus on local energy production led to a call from a businessman in a mid-sized Midwest town who is exploring the potential of installing solar systems on roofs in the downtown business district, a local university and on the public schools.  His interest in solar was stimulated by an awareness of a project in Colorado in which systems were installed on school roofs. He wondered about the economic feasibility of the project and how it could be financed.  While still in the idea stage, if a project emerges it could serve to stimulate interest in other communities.

A community approach to clean energy sources can provide a measure of energy security, reduce pollution, shield the public from swings in energy prices and help move us toward more sustainable energy systems.

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