Green friendly Urbana family wants solar panels for yard

By Lauren Mangurten

Regularly transporting a full load of groceries and two sons on a bicycle can be a big undertaking, but Christie Nugent is willing to go the distance for the environment.

The Urbana family’s latest effort is a plan to install photovoltaic solar panels in their backyard.

The struggle to find a fitting place in their backyard to put the panels may lead Urbana to change city codes.

Nugent said she would like to put the solar panels near the utility strip in her backyard, and Urbana policy prevents her from doing so.

Nugent lives in an old neighborhood with a lot of trees – trees that shade her roof too much for solar panels, she said. However, she does not want to cut down the trees, which cool her house in the summer and prevent unnecessary air-conditioning.

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    But the high costs of installation and upkeep discourage people from putting the panels in, said David Ruzic, professor in Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering.

    Ruzic explained how the panels work. Because of the type of silicon in a photovoltaic panel, there is a small electric field just under the surface of the panels. When sunlight hits the silicon just under the surface, it splits off an electron from an ion, creating an electrical current.

    “I think it’s great if people choose to spend their dollars that way,” Ruzic said. “It wouldn’t be an economic decision I would want to make.”

    The family is approved to install the solar panels under an Illinois grant program that will refund 30 percent of the cost of the panels. She said she encourages those who can afford the panels to take advantage of this program.

    But for the Nugent family, reasons for the panels go beyond strictly monetary concerns.

    “We do what we can to cut down our dependence on fossil fuels,” Nugent said. Nugent recently brought her concerns to the Urbana City Council as part of a larger discussion titled Sustainable Urbana. Urbana City Council member Brandon Bowersox, Ward 4, had the idea for the discussion, which is looking at 18 initiatives to improve sustainability.

    Bowersox said the rules are not yet flexible enough. Residents should not only be allowed to put in solar panels, but they should be encouraged to do so, he added.

    “We want a comprehensive look at all of our city codes,” he said.

    He said the city will look at codes on not only solar power, but also on other aspects of sustainability, including energy-efficient buildings and green building techniques.

    Nugent said the council responded well to her concerns. Her family has to ask for special consideration to put in the panels. Given that her neighbors do not have a problem with the panels, the Nugents should be able to put them in, she said.

    “I think it’s important for the community to be more self-sustaining,” Nugent said.