Going solar: Urbana family uses renewable energy

By Rachael Bolek, Managing Editor for Online

At a home in Urbana, one family loved the idea of using renewable energy to help the environment, so they installed their own solar panels and wind turbine.

Rena and Drew Jones designed and built their house in 1998 with the hope to one day utilize renewable energy. Between 2006 and 2007, they installed a total of 34 solar panels on their roof. In fall 2007, they built a 55-foot-high wind turbine.

Since then, Rena said their electric bill has been as low as $6.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average electric bill in the U.S. in 2015 was $114.03; in Illinois, it was $89.91. This was the most recent data available.

“We were only the second house in this entire region to actually be grid-tied with Ameren to participate in net metering,” Rena said.

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According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, net metering “allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from solar power to feed electricity they do not use back into the (utility) grid.”

Rena said if their home produces too much energy and doesn’t use it all, Ameren gives them “credits,” which means when they don’t produce enough solar power to cover what they use, those credits go toward that month.

However, Rena said the credits go back to zero every April.

“If they move forward and forward, there comes a month where you no longer get your credits,” Rena said. “It’s not advantageous for us to send too many back, or we may not get the credit that we deserve.”

Back in 2006, Rena said it was difficult to become grid-tied with Ameren because at that time, Ameren didn’t have a specific contract for residents who wanted to use solar power.

“The representative from Ameren said, ‘I’m going to email you a contract and you need to look through it and fill out all the pertinent information and then send it back,’” Rena said. “I watched the screen and it was loading 30 pages and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how is that possible?’ It’s because we were considered a small power plant.”

On Ameren’s website, there is now a one-page application to apply for net metering. Rena said the family’s initiative most likely helped motivate Ameren to create this application. 

Scott Tess, environmental sustainability manager of Urbana, said the increase in demand for solar power in Champaign County can be attributed to its financial benefits.

“Generally, these equipment installations are gonna save the owner money on their utility bill over the life of the piece of equipment,” Tess said. “You have a solar array that has a 25-year warrantied life, and it’s gonna pay for itself in seven to 10 years.”

Rena said the financial benefit was one of the main reasons she invested in solar power. She also got money back after she and her husband installed their first 18 panels in June 2006.

“Originally, we were given a tax credit of $2,000 for the project,” Rena said. “But then, it actually increased to 30 percent of the cost of the project.”

This was due to the Solar Investment Tax Credit. According to the SEIA, the tax credit was passed in 2006 and provides a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar systems installed on residential or commercial properties.

They used that money to install six more solar panels in September of the same year. In 2007, they installed 10 additional panels.

“By then, 30 percent of the cost of the project was covered by the federal tax credit and the state also was paying 30 percent of the project, so for the last 10 panels, 60 percent was paid by government money,” Rena said.

Rena said the initial cost of installing her solar system was $44,300. She received a $14,400 rebate from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economics and $6,000 in federal tax credits. She said the final cost for her solar system was $23,900.

Tess said he thinks the cost of solar will go down in the future.

“The solar market in Illinois is fairly new and undeveloped,” Tess said. “In the next decade, it’s gonna become far more developed. There will be more installers (who will) be more experienced and more efficient, and prices will go down.”

This decrease in price has led to an increase in the solar capacity installed in the U.S. as a whole. Solar capacity is the maximum amount of energy that panels can produce, according to the SEIA.

However, Rena said solar panels don’t always produce as much as they can. She said one factor that heavily influences production is the season.

“(Production) has to do with how the angle of the sun is in orientation to the panel,” Rena said. “It has highest efficiency when (the sun hits) it straight-on.”

In the winter, she said the sun is a little low, so the solar panels aren’t producing maximum energy. In the summer, she said, the sun is high, so the panels are producing more energy.

She said during the spring, summer and fall, their solar system produces approximately 1,000 kilowatts of power a month. In the winter, it produces approximately 600 kW a month.

Rena said she’s glad to see solar energy becoming more accessible to people throughout the U.S., because the undeveloped solar market is why it took the Joneses so long to install panels on their home in 2006. They had to spend a significant amount of time researching how to install the panels.

“There was no recipe on how to install solar panels at that time,” Rena said. “Panels didn’t come with installation instructions; they were just panels. There was very little online. Now there is just a plethora of information.”

Since Rena had problems finding exactly how to install solar panels, she said she and her husband hired a contractor to help guide them in the right direction. However, they didn’t hire him to install the panels himself; they simply paid him for his expertise.

She said her husband Drew and the contractor finished installing the panels in one day and they were up and running the next. 

According to SolarCity, solar power systems are made up of five components: an inverter, electrical panel, utility meter, utility grid and solar panels. The solar panels are what actually get put on top of someone’s house.

To get even more people in the area installing solar panels, Rena said she and her husband often try spreading the word about solar power in Champaign County.

“Every year there is an open house that (the Illinois Solar Energy Association) asks us and others anywhere in the country to participate in,” Rena said. “The first year that we did it, we had over 100 people show up.”

Drew, Rena’s husband, said the event ran longer than it was supposed to due to such high interest.

“It was supposed to go from, like, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and it ended up being until something like 7 p.m.,” Drew said.

Rena said attendance at the open house has decreased over the years, but she doesn’t attribute this to a decreased interest in solar power.

“I think that now there are so many other sources of how you can learn about alternative energy that (people) don’t really have to go to open houses,” Rena said.

Since the demand for solar power has increased, Champaign County has also increased its efforts to gets its citizens to use solar power.

In 2016, Tess said the City of Urbana partnered with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to form Solar Urbana-Champaign, a group buy program for solar power in Champaign County. Since it’s a group buy program, there are savings for each participant, because the program orders panels in bulk.

Prior to this program, Tess said he’s unsure how many people in the area installed solar. However, he said with Solar Urbana-Champaign, they will be able to see what the demand for solar power is like in the area.

“We know we had 81 contracts last year,” Tess said. “What we’ll be able to see after this year is at least a two-year trend.”

The Joneses recently encountered a problem that Rena said could be common to those who decide to use solar panels in Champaign County: squirrels.

“They actually chewed through the wires, so my husband took down all those panels that are on this first array (of 18), and he rewired them and he just put them up again,” Rena said.

Although they had to “learn the hard way,” she said they are taking precautions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“We’re going to actually put a wire mesh grid all the way around the panels so that the squirrels can’t get underneath there,” Rena said. “(Drew) also reinforced all the tubing … so they’re like industrial strength wires now.”

Apart from the squirrels, Rena said their solar panels have worked “flawlessly” for the past decade.

“There are millions of people who are now feeling more strongly than ever that we have to be looking to alternative energy sources,” Rena said. “Fossil fuel will expire; it will come to an end. And the sooner that we can transition to renewable resources, the better position the world will be in.”

Rena said it’s nice to finally see others around her doing what she and her husband have done for years. 

“It gives people hope that if they have any inclination or want to move in this direction,” Rena said. “That they can identify with us, because we’re just average people, and if we could do this, maybe they think they could too.”

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