Highlights from the recent IREA solar class and approaching legislative battles

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

This year’s hands-on solar class included well informed participants, including some who are eager to install their own solar electric systems. The class provides background on such systems and applies the workshop information by assembling a 1 kW system and assessing its performance.

Participants are motivated by environmental concerns, expanding their knowledge of renewable energy, and a desire to both provide some of their own electric power and decrease their electric bills.

Currently 90 percent of residential solar systems are installed on roofs. Most are grid tied and will not produce power if the grid goes down. They pay for themselves after five to seven years and perform for 30 years or more. Buying a system is more beneficial than leasing one. Adding backup batteries would add $2/watt to a residential system.

A potential system owner can use Google Earth to determine if there is a suitable area on the property for a solar system and use PV Watts for an estimate how much power the system will produce.

The future of the solar revolution is increasingly promising. A US Department of Energy report, Revolution … Now: The Future Arrives for Five Clean Energy Technologies, states that solar, wind, LED lights, batteries and electric cars combined reveal the energy revolution is happening now. Nearly 40 percent of our current U.S. electrical consumption could be met by distributed rooftop solar electricity.

When IREA began its work in 2001 residential solar electric system installed costs were $8/watt while in 2016 installed costs for residential size systems are about $3/watt before using any of the available incentives.

Costs are further reduced by the 30 percent federal tax credit and net metering which allows system owners to sell electricity back to the grid. Other potential economic benefits include the sale of solar renewable energy credits in the carbon market as well as the possibility that funds being collected by the State of Illinois from ratepayers to support renewable energy will be released to customers who install systems.

Despite available incentives to support an energy transition, system installers report that business in Illinois is slow and very competitive. A recent commentary by Tom Kimbis in the Chicago Tribune attributes the relatively slow rate of growth in Illinois to the uncertainties at the state policy level regarding differing expectations between utility investors such as Exelon and ComEd and renewable energy advocates seeking to capture the benefits of the solar revolution.

There are numerous energy issue battles going on in Illinois including whether ratepayers should support continuing operations of selected nuclear power plants. There is also the proposal by ComEd to shift residential rate charges based on how much electricity a customer uses during a month to how much they consume at the highest demand times of day. ComEd claims the shift will provide consumers with an incentive to consume less while critics claim it will be confusing to customers and make it harder for them to control their energy bills.

The regulatory battles over energy policy are expected to be addressed during next month’s legislative session. Hopefully a compromise will be reached that accelerates a transition to renewable energy instead of continuing to slow it down. For an update on new developments in Solar Power consider attending the PV Conference and Expo in Chicago on November 9 and 10 for evidence the solar revolution is underway.

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