By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association
Since we co-founded the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) in 2000, we have witnessed tremendous growth in interest and development of solar PV.
We came to renewable energy via our long standing interest in ecology. When we realized that widespread changes in native ecosystems were linked to the use of fossil fuels, we began promoting renewable energy.
In the late 1980s, we developed a solar electric education kit and used it in workshops throughout Illinois, North, Central and South America and Europe.
In 2001, IREA hosted the first PV workshop in Crystal Lake, encouraging people to support solar and homeowners to try their own installations. After the workshop, we decided to install our first system – a 1.5 kW set of amorphous panels. We asked Dave Merrill to install the system as he was the only local person providing the service.
Two years later we installed another 1.6 kW of Siemens polycrystalline panels on an old hog house. Last year, we added a 5.2 kW system, bringing our renewable energy systems to nearly 10 kW.
To stimulate interest in rewewables, IREA offered the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair and the annual tour of solar homes in which people are invited to visit homes with solar installations and speak with the owners. This year, the tour of solar homes will be held on October 1. As individual home systems were installed, we visited them, interviewed the owners, and publicized them in our Rock River Times columns. We introduced Merrill to many of our contacts in the area, resulting in numerous installations. Since that time, he estimates that he has installed over 200 home PV systems. A recent article indicated that over 600 PV systems existed in the ComEd service area. If so, our efforts have had a significant impact.
Each spring and fall, IREA offers classes in solar electricity with a hands-on component that allows class members to lay out and mount solar panels and wire connections between them, the inverter, conduit, and breaker switches. They then plug the set of panels into the existing home system and watch it work. The next workshop will be held at IREA headquarters on September 24.
In 2006, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF) began to fund small 1 kW systems on Illinois K-12 schools, marking a new level of support for renewable energy. We were involved with Eswood School in Lindenwood and Pecatonica Middle School, among the earliest. Now over 280 solar PV systems have been funded through their program. Students learn about how solar electricity is made and how it is used. Some schools have reduced their electricity consumption based on the information. Since 2011, wind generators have also been funded.
During the early 2000s, Winnebago County established and funded Freedom Field, a demonstration project which would install different forms of renewable energy working together. The first was solar PV. Computer programs tracked production and progress. The project was intended to interest the public in renewable energy and educate them about it so that they would make it part of their own lives. We were part of the effort for several years and watched it grow. It now serves primarily to provide research and learning opportunities for Rock Valley College students.
From modest beginnings, solar energy has become an international phenomenon. While impressive progress has been made, we still need much more renewable energy.