Solar energy powering up in Illinois

Source: By Steve Tarter, Journal Star • Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Solar energy may finally be rising out of the darkness in Illinois.

“The (solar) market is beginning to ripen here in the Midwest. The industry has been strong for a number of years on the east and west coasts,” said Jason Hawksworth, founder of Hawk Energy Solutions in Washington.

Hawk Energy, a company that designs, builds and provides financial information on solar projects, recently collaborated with Ruyle Mechanical Services, a business in Downtown Peoria, on the installation of a solar system on the company’s roof. The solar system is expected to yield a $22,000 profit in five years along with covering the system’s $62,500 cost.

“This is what we do,” said Hawksworth, noting that the company has completed a number of solar installations around the state including at several churches, a facility in Deer Creek and an urban farm in Chicago.

While Illinois has been among the leading states in the country in the adoption of wind energy, Illinois has lagged behind in harnessing power from another renewable energy source: the sun. “We’re ranked 27th nationally among all the states when it comes to solar capacity,” said Shannon Fulton, president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. “But we saw solar energy installations in the state rise 75 percent in 2015 over the previous year,” she said.

Despite the relatively low cost of electricity, solar power is growing in Illinois, said Fulton, who works for Straight Up Solar in Bloomington. “The cost of solar technology continues to drop and installers are becoming more efficient,” she said.

“The incentives are there. Things are better now than they’ve ever been,” said Fulton, referring to technological progress that’s been made as well as state and federal tax credits available to encourage solar projects.

But negotiating the solar landscape when there are programs to deal with such as SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) and MACRS (Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System) can require additional public education, she said.

“We’re trying to make solar simple,” said Fulton, noting that Straight Up Solar partnered with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association for a program in Champaign-Urbana that resulted in 82 businesses and companies going solar. “We hold a series of power hours to provide information while offering a base bulk price,” she said.

Hawksworth added that education is “the biggest piece of the puzzle” regarding solar projects, suggesting that companies that want to look into solar might do well to involve an energy consultant to determine specific cost savings as well as the availability of incentives and tax credits.

While sun-drenched states such as California and Arizona have made big strides in generating solar power in recent years, solar energy can do fine in Illinois, said Steve Flinn, an instructor at Illinois Central College. “Germany is a country that might get less sunshine than Illinois but has consumed 50 percent of the world’s solar panels,” he said.

While sunlight is important in the production of solar energy, there’s no solar advantage gained when temperatures rise, said Flinn. “Hot weather actually reduces the efficiency of solar panels,” he said.

The decision to put a solar system on the roof of an old warehouse building at 201 Spring St. in Downtown Peoria was an easy one, said Steve Foster, Ruyle’s president. “From the beginning, we wanted to incorporate the latest building practices to assure the building would be energy efficient and a functioning laboratory where we will demonstrate these technologies,” he said.

“We see solar as a growing side of our business,” said Foster, referring to Ruyle, a mechanical services contractor with 55 employees. “You’re going to see more of solar in the future as the efficiency of the panels increases. The beauty of solar is that it’s virtually maintenance-free with no moving parts,” he said.