Switching to solar

Cost savings, environmental concerns lead residents to invest in solar energy

For 75-year-old Jerome Salins of Sycamore, choosing to install solar panels on his house was an easy decision to make.

“I was interested in installing them 15 to 20 years ago but they were too expensive,” Salins said. “It was a great idea, but not affordable for my family at that time.”

Salins, concerned about the environment and worried about climate change, decided to look into solar energy more seriously after he purchased a home in Sycamore five years ago.

After doing some research, Salins entered into a 20-year leasing agreement with Vivant Solar. On June 26, 20 solar panels were installed on his roof and are awaiting activation by ComEd.

By having the solar panels on his roof for 20 years, the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator estimates his system alone will have saved 2,600 trees, have taken 22 cars off the road and removed the need for burning 110,800 pounds of coal.

“I knew that the solar panels would help me save money on my utility bill, but I didn’t realize it would be as big an impact as it is,” Salins said. “I think it’s pretty doggone impressive. For me, the proof will be in the pudding after I receive my first electricity bill.”

Robert Cummings of Cortland, 61, purchased 21 solar panels from Independence Renewable Energy in 2015 and they were turned on in 2016. Cummings spent $22,000 for the two panels, but received a 30% tax credit on his federal income tax, received a 25% tax incentive from the state and had his solar energy generation purchased by ComEd for about $5,000.

“I cut my electricity bill in half, and by next year, the system will have paid for itself,” Cummings said. “Panels are getting better and better and more affordable all the time. I switched to solar because it is going to be the future – it already is.”

What is solar energy?

According to the Illinois Solar Energy Association, there are five principal sources of renewable energy: sunlight, wind, flowing water, biomass from photosynthesis and geothermal systems. Fossil fuels, including oil, coal and natural gas, are nonrenewable resources that will eventually be depleted or too expensive to retrieve.

A solar photovoltaic system uses panels to convert sunlight directly into electricity. The panels, also called modules, are made from semiconductor materials that convert sunlight into electricity. Photons from the sun strike the semiconductor material, dislodging electrons and creating direct current. The DC is converted by an inverter to the standard alternating current commonly used in homes.

The renewable energy created by the PV system is connected to an inverter that ties into the electrical grid of the homeowner’s utility provider, such as ComEd. The grid-tie inverter connects to a main service panel, electric meter and the utility power grid.

The ISEA describes living with a grid-connected PV system as “no different than living with grid power, except that some or all of the electricity you use comes from the sun.”

Net Metering

Illinois utility companies, including ComEd, offer Net Metering, which is credit given to homeowners for producing power. The energy cannot be stored, so any surplus renewable energy generated is sold back to the utility company’s grid and credit is applied to the homeowners’ electricity bill.

Some PV systems allow for battery backup if the grid fails or if there is a power outage. The batteries do not store created energy and only act as a short-term energy source if there is a power outage or blackout.

Weather or not?

Solar panels still work on cloudy days, picking up ambient and UV light for 10-50% effectiveness. Germany produces the world’s most solar power, about five times that of the United States, even though their sunlight is equivalent to Alaska’s, the state with the least amount of sunlight.

Norm Johnson of Independence Renewable Energy said that a sunny day in Illinois can generate more energy than a sunny day in Miami, Florida.

“Every day, the sun makes enough energy to power the world for an entire year,” Johnson said. “Clouds happen, but Miami is usually more smoggy and hazy.”

PV systems have a life expectancy of 30 to 35 years, but produce 80-85% of the energy after 25 years. Almost all come with warrantees and are covered under home owner's insurance. They are made to withstand a minimum of 100 mile an hour winds and have space between the panels and the roof to allow the flow of water, snow and air movement.


Homeowners that purchase solar panels and have them installed by a certified installer can qualify for incentives through the federal and state governments. Purchasing or installing a PV system on your own may disqualify the system for rebates and incentives; solar businesses receive the rebates and incentives if the system is leased.

In 2005, the federal government began a 30% tax credit incentive for homeowners that installed PV systems. The incentive will decrease to 26% in 2020.

Illinois Shines, the brand name of the Adjustable Block Program, is an Illinois-administered program for new PV systems. The program provides payments in exchange for 15 years of State Renewable Energy Credits generated by new PV systems.

Homeowners interested in solar energy can also apply for grants. One example of a solar energy grant is the Rural Energy for America Program, which provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to farmers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements.

The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation funds grants for energy efficiency improvements and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity offers rebates up to 50% for small-scale renewable energy installations and up to 50% for large-scale renewable energy projects.

“What would you do if you could lock in the price of gas 25 years ago?” Johnson said. “Installing solar panels is like pre-buying energy at today’s rate.”

Saving money

Salins’ electricity bill was an average of $74 a month without including the $11 grid charge and $5 meter charge. Once his new PV system is activated, Salins will pay $47 a month for the first year to Vivint Solar, a savings of $324 a year.

Leasing the solar panels from Vivint Solar with a 2.9% annual rate increase a year, Salins won’t be paying Vivint Solar the amount he is currently paying ComEd until approximately 15 years from now. Plus, Salins still has the opportunity to purchase his system after year six or after year 20.

Joe McClintock, energy consultant with Vivint Solar, referred to Steve Daniel’s Feb. 15 article in Crain’s Chicago Business that states that ComEd’s four-year capital plan will lead to higher rates.

“ComEd is projected to raise rates 6-8% annually until 2022 because they are upgrading to a smart grid,” McClintock said. “You have to buy your energy from somewhere, whether it's solar energy from the system you’re leasing or own or entirely from the utility company. When you add solar panels to your home or business, you’re not getting rid of ComEd. You’re essentially becoming a substation for them and helping create clean energy.”

The amount of energy a system is allowed to produce is regulated. ComEd customers are allowed to produce 110% of the energy they used over the last 12 months. Salins has decided to use only renewable energy and will purchase any additional power he needs from a third-party supplier that generates its energy from wind turbines.

“I think solar panels make your home look new and modern, it’s something you’d see in California with cutting-edge technology,” Salins said. “I’m so happy I made this decision. Saving money and saving the earth, why would someone not do this?”

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