Solar power information session popular in Wilmette

More than 100 Wilmette residents have signed up with a program that offers discounts for buying solar panel heating systems, and backers of the program may see more before the discount program’s Sept. 30 sign-up deadline, if turnout at an Aug. 20 informational session is any indication.

Close to 40 people attended the meeting at Wilmette Village Hall to hear more about the Solar Chicago discount program funded by national environmental groups, and spearheaded locally by the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center.

That’s a healthy number, ELPC policy associate Seth Johnson said after the meeting, which brought residents together with village officials, program sponsors and representatives of two solar panel contractors picked to participate in the Chicago area discount program.

“This is one of the first community meetings we’ve held outside the city, and I think it’s a great turnout,” Johnson said. In comparison, recent meetings he’s attended in Chicago have attracted between 25 and 55 people, he said.

Those at the Wilmette session got the basics of the program from village and ELPC representatives. They also got answers to a variety of questions from Kacie Peters, a representative of one of the participating solar contractors.

How long does it take to pay off the cost of an average home system? About 7 years, compared to the 25 years such systems remain fully efficient, Peters said. How can you handle roof repairs? She said that panels can actually help protect roofs, but added that it’s a good idea to repair or update roofs over 12 years of age at the same time the panels are installed. Can you install solar panels on a flat-roofed house? Yes, she said.

Some at the session, like east Wilmette resident Mark Kraemer, were enthusiastic about the possibility of putting in a solar panel energy system.

“I’m not sure I can, because my property is very shady, but it’s been a dream of mine for years, and I’d do it in a minute if I could. I’m still hoping it’s possible, and I wanted to learn as much as possible,” Kraemer said.

Others who attended, like Trudi Gibbs, have already installed a system – in her case, she and her husband installed eight panels on a back yard pergola five years ago, and they now get about 20 percent of their total electric power from the panels, she said.

“I actually calculate savings in terms of the amount of coal that is not being burned to provide us energy,” Gibbs said. “We calculated that we’ve kept about eight tons of coal from being burned.”

Attendees learned that Wilmette was chosen as one of only four suburbs taking part in the discount program because its permitting process is streamlined, and the village’s zoning is open to solar panel installation.

This year’s zoning code overhaul is one reason residents should have few permitting difficulties with a well-planned system, Community Development Director John Adler told listeners. There are still height restrictions, he acknowledged, but “the system’s been streamlined.”

The concept behind Solar Chicago is simple: if enough people take part, the customer pool for solar system providers will be large enough not only to cover expenses, but to offer installation prices up to 25 percent lower than regular installation costs.

People in the program will end up buying solar power at $3.49 a watt – meaning that a typical 3-kilowatt solar installation can be bought for a little over $10,000, which is up to 25 percent lower than going rates. A federal investment tax credit could lower that even more.

The number of suburban residents has grown since July 31, when ELPC legislative co-director Sarah Wochos said 102 customers from all four suburban program participants had signed up, compared to just over 900 Chicagoans.

As of this week, in addition to the Wilmette sign-ups, more than 100 customers have signed up in Oak Park, while smaller numbers have signed up in Hanover Park and Franklin Park, Johnson said.

In addition to the Sept. 30 deadline for signing up for the discount program, participants have until Oct. 31 to sign an actual contract with one of the installation companies.

To learn more about Solar Chicago, request a free solar consultation, or to sign up for the program, visit www.mygroupenergy.com/grou/solarchicago.

BRIGHT IDEA

TITLE: Solar Chicago

WHAT: solar system purchase program

SELLING POINT: cost discounts

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