Solar workshops a hit despite recent cold snap

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl 

[dropcap]Despite[/dropcap] the cold weather, our fall solar electric workshop was well attended. Participants experienced what solar installers often deal with working in cold temperatures and gusty winds. The 1 kW system managed to produce over 40 watts of power illustrating the impact of unavailable sun on an overcast fall day.

An interesting aspect of the workshops for us is the discussions that are always a part of the day. Participants enjoyed actually assembling a system. They came with various levels of information and experience with solar energy and electricity. One has had a system since 2009, which has performed well. He was considering whether an off-grid system on another piece of land he owns would make financial sense for him.

A quick text message by another class member’s son in northern Minnesota indicated the utility in his area charges $15-20 dollars per foot to bring a power line to his home from the existing grid. A full mile at the lower fee alone would require $78,000. While the costs of running a line will vary depending on the utility, it is an important point to consider. If a home needs electrical service, it might be better to consider going off grid and investing the money in a solar system with back-ups such as a propane generator or batteries. Even at $5 per watt for an off-grid system with battery backup, a 15 kW system can be off-grid and energy independent. With the continued drop in the cost of solar systems and battery packs, going off grid will be economically feasible for more homeowners.

Most participants were interested in the economic feasibility of installing a solar system on their homes. One was primarily interested in the revenue stream the system would generate. He plans to start small by taking the system off grid and gradually expanding as he gains experience and has the income to provide service to his home. Another was looking forward to building a new home and including solar electricity in it. By properly insulating the home and buying energy efficient appliances he would reduce the size of the system. Another with a shop hopes to power it with PV.

Some wondered why there were signs objecting to the potential of proposed wind and solar farms in this area. Beyond concerns over their visual impacts, some farmers have rejected offers for solar and wind farms out of a concern for the long-term contracts involved and the loss of cropland. Beyond on land installations, many buildings can accommodate 600 kW solar systems or more on their rooftops. One estimate of available rooftop space in the southwest Chicago area of warehouses indicates nearly five square miles are available for solar systems.

While the cost of solar panels could nearly double in price depending on whether President Trump enacts a tariff on imports primarily from China, the economics of solar electricity remains extremely favorable. The Illinois Power Agency will finalize plans to support renewable energy by the end of November. Included in their plans is a reimbursement fee to the owner of a newly installed system based on the amount of renewable energy credits (RECs) the system is expected to generate over the next 15 years. The value of the RECs to the owner is in addition to the 30 percent federal tax deduction.

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