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Sunny outlook: Solar energy becomes more reliable, and affordable.

Sunny outlook: Solar energy becomes more reliable, and affordable.

Sunny outlook: Solar energy becomes more reliable, affordable.

David Proeber dproeber@pantagraph.com Feb 8, 2016

NORMAL — The prospect of free electricity is a dream that Americans have chased for generations.

DAVID PROEBER, The Pantagraph

Ron Storm and Josh Fries, electricians for Ruyle Mechanical of Peoria, install a solar array on the roof of Steve Heissler at 901 Sheridan rd in Normal. Together with federal and state credits, the 20-panel system will generate enough power to pay for itself in six years. For Steve Heissler, that dream appears to be on the near horizon as workers install a new solar array atop his Normal home.

Heissler’s quest for free power follows some interesting history that traces its roots two centuries back to the frontier of American innovation. As early as the late 1800s, inventor Nikola Tesla believed that electricity could be broadcast through the ground and could be provided free for all mankind. While Tesla’s ground transmission system was never completed, he did go on to receive a patent in 1901 for conversion of radiant energy into electricity following the work of his contemporary, Charles Fritts, who theorized that solar cells could be made from selenium wafers. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s, though, that homeowners began to seriously consider harnessing the sun’s rays to power their televisions, heat their toasters and warm the bath water in their own homes. The Arab oil embargo brought with it huge increases in fuel prices, making the cost of power to consumers something they actually began to worry about. Early solar power arrays began to become common more than 20 years ago, said Jason Hawksworth, a solar system designer for Hawk Energy Solutions in Washington. “The problem with the early systems was that they weren’t particularly reliable,” he said. The proof is still with us, he said, noting that antiquated, inoperable systems are still perched on the roofs of early residential and commercial adopters around the area. Like many newly retired people, Heissler wanted to reduce his living expenses to the minimum. After retiring from his job as an IT project manager at Country Financial last June, he and his wife, Cathy, pursued their dream of adventure traveling — sometimes called extreme camping. “We use a lot of battery-powered devices,” Heissler said. “A lot of them use solar energy for recharging, so I began to take an interest in what solar power could do to reduce the footprint of our home.” While the prospect of free electricity got him thinking about a solar system, a lot of concerns — primarily cost of initial installation — were a problem for which he didn’t have all the answers. “Homeowners typically use a variety of means to recoup the cost of solar systems,” Hawksworth said. Federal energy tax credits coupled with Illinois’ Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) system, a means by which homeowners sell energy back to utility companies , can pay for the cost of a solar system over time, he said. Heissler ‘s rooftop array and electrical control system ran around $19,000, he said. “With the tax credits and utility buyback program I believe I will recoup the cost in about six years,” Heissler said. “The lifetime of the system is about 25 years so I expect to have free electricity after the first six years.”

Heissler’s system was installed by Ruyle Mechanical Services of Peoria. They are just one of several Illinois providers that are members of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. “Solar installations of this type will be a big deal in the near future,” said Gary Clark, Ruyle Electrical division manager. “We are seeing a lot more popping up.” Ron Storm, an electrician with Ruyle, said Heissler’s system is comprised of 60 cells in 20 panels that were being installed on the south-facing roof of the home. The system is capable of generating about 5.2 Kw at 8 amps, Hawksworth said. That’s about three times the normal power requirements of an average home, said Kiersten Sheets, spokeswoman for Ruyle. She said the arrays are typically oversized to allow for dark, cloudy conditions that might reduce the system’s ability to generate David Proeber electricity. A small controller next to the home’s electrical panel monitors the system. It is significantly smaller than systems installed just a few years ago.

Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) statistics state that enough solar power is being generated in Illinois to fuel more than 7,000 homes. That makes Illinois the 22nd largest user of solar energy in the U.S. In 2014 alone, IREC reported more than 195,000 new solar energy installations nationwide. Hawksworth said that as the cost of the panels continues to fall and reliability continues to increase, solar installations are likely to continue to grow across Central Illinois. Rising solar Information on Illinois SREC system: www.illinoissolartour.org Incentives.html Illinois Solar Energy Association: www.illinoissolar.org Legislation to support solar energy in Illinois: www.illinoissolar.org The history of solar energy: www.sunlightelectric.com/pvhistory.php Government funding for small solar energy businesses: http://energy.gov/public-services/funding-financing

David Proeber