Residential solar power spreads in Wilmette | The Wilmette Beacon
Reprinted from The Wilmette Beacon.
Ten years ago, Beth and Harry Drucker installed solar panels on the roof of their home on the 2500 block of Greenwood Avenue in Wilmette.
The Druckers are known around Wilmette for being a green couple. Beth Drucker co-founded Go Green Wilmette in 2006. They drive a Toyota Prius with “Reduce” on the vanity plate, though they ride their bikes when they can. They also have smaller-impact habits: turning off lights and unplugging electronics when they’re not in use.
And the solar panels were yet another way to be green — as well as to inform people about a lesser-known industry. While the Village of Wilmette does not have records that indicate the first residential solar panels installed in Wilmette, the Druckers’ home is believed to be one of the first.
“We wanted to put these things up to have conversations with people,” Harry Drucker said.
The Druckers’ panels, though undeniably noticeable, are quietly effective: Two solar thermal panels face the southern skies, transferring solar energy into heat that warms their water supply. Twelve solar photovoltaic panels face southwest and convert solar energy into electricity.
Heat and electricity production are at the highest during the summer, but the Druckers said the panels will provide half their warm water and electricity over the course of the year.
Since those panels were installed in 2006, similar installations have adorned Wilmette, notated by a detailed map maintained by the Druckers.
It shows most of the 27 residential installations spread across town as far west as New Trier Court and as far east as Michigan Avenue.
Regina Dominican High School and Highcrest Middle School also have solar photovoltaic panels.
Six new installations sprung up in 2015, the probable result of Solar Chicago, a short-lived program that pooled communities — including Wilmette — together to buy panels in bulk.
But increases like these, albeit progress, are still slow to come.
“A lot of us needed to start doing this stuff yesterday,” Harry Drucker said.
Solar in Illinois
Illinois ranks 18th nationwide in number of solar-powered homes, according to current data from The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to make solar energy more understandable.
Of the approximately 22,090 solar-powered homes in Illinois, Cook County ranks first in the number of individually installed solar arrays (the linking of several solar panels), with 127 as of December 2015.
But not all areas of Cook County are conducive to drawing solar energy.
“When you’re in an area like Wilmette, sometimes it doesn’t make sense [to have solar panels] because of tree coverage,” said Community Development Director John Adler, who helps permit residents who want to install solar panels.
While trees are a boon to property values, they present challenges to those wanting to benefit from solar power.
Bruce and Laurie Davidson live on the 100 block of 17th Street, a road with a smattering of mature trees.
About a year ago, they installed 10 panels on the north-facing roof of their home and eight panels on the south-facing roof. Electricity generation is more productive on the south roof, but Bruce said there was only room for eight panels there.
Paul Doughty and his wife, Kim Rode, live in a home enshrouded by trees and vegetation on the 1900 block of Lake Avenue.
They found installing 20 solar panels on the roof of their detached garage, where they grow vegetables in storage bins on the perimeter, was the most efficient. Their array has been in place since February 2015.
In 2014, the Village of Wilmette eased some regulations required of solar energy systems to make it easier for residents to install the systems.
But still, installation requires diligence.
“I wish the process were more turnkey,” Doughty said. “It’s not quite easy in Illinois yet.”
The politics of panels
Incentives for solar through the federal government are reliable: Residents can receive a 30 percent tax credit on qualified expenditures from their solar installations.
Incentives through the state are less forthright.
Last December, a bill was passed through the Illinois legislature to extend the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Solar and Wind Energy Rebate and Grant program through 2020.
But restrictive permitting and installation deadlines subsequently imposed on homeowners looking for rebates, along with a long waiting period to see whether a system is approved for a rebate, turns some off from the whole process, said Lisa Albrecht, a board member of the Illinois Solar Energy Association.
“People assume solar is a do-gooder decision, but in reality, the numbers have to be there or people won’t make the investment, so rebates were really important,” said Albrecht, who is a renewable energy specialist for Solar Service Inc., a Niles-based solar installation company.
Most of those installing solar systems are from the middle or middle-upper class, Albrecht said.
In 2006, the Druckers, who had Solar Service Inc. install their panels, paid $17,956 out-of-pocket for their 14 solar thermal and solar photovoltaic panels. They received both a federal tax credit and a state rebate.
Harry predicts it will take another five years for the panels to pay off.
The cost of Paul and Kim’s 20 panels in 2015 was $10,488 after a 20 percent discount for taking part in the Solar Chicago program was applied, as well as a federal tax credit and state rebate. They are waiting for the state to release funds for solar renewable energy credits, a program in which they enrolled last summer that is supposed to pay quarterly based on solar production.
Those looking to install systems now may not see as many incentives while funds remain intangible.
“Illinois’ policies have been very broken and they’ve been quite unreliable,” Albrecht said. “You never know if you’re going to get assistance in purchasing a system.”
The benefits of solar
But for those ready to dole out some cash — and patience — for these systems, there are benefits.
An electric bill of the Druckers’ in May totaled 68 cents for electric use — the lowest they’ve seen. At its highest, their bill has been $35.
Paul Doughty and Kim Rode installed their system when their daughter encouraged them to do so after she came home from a field trip with the fourth-grade class at Harper Elementary School to see the Druckers’ system.
“It was daunting at first to learn about this, particularly if you’re not of an engineering bend,” Doughty said. “But it’s a good investment for the home, and it makes it more attractive.”
“People are really curious about it,” Kim added. “Being able to tell others about it has opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
And of course, many value feeling green.
“We look everywhere and we see the opportunity to make clean, renewable energy,” Beth Drucker said.
Doughty suggested looking for those opportunities: “You can do more than filling up your recycling bin to call yourself green.”