Here comes the sun

More Oak Park residents opting to go solar

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Annie Wilkinson has been interested in the environment for a long time. Before she became a homeowner, she volunteered with GRID Alternatives, an organization dedicated to helping people use renewable energy technology in underserved areas. 

When she bought a house in Oak Park in the summer of 2019, one of the first things she did was start researching solar options for her home. 

"I was finally able to do it," Wilkinson said. "There's nothing so satisfying as being to do this on your own house."

Wilkinson heard about a company called Sun Power through the Sierra Club and decided to have them come out and walk her through the process. She found that with the current tax incentives offered at the state and federal level, the choice to go solar was more affordable than she anticipated. 

For her home's 19 solar panels, she notes they had options to lease the panels or buy them outright. Planning to put down roots and stay in the area for a while, Wilkinson opted to buy the panels and says with the 2019 state and federal incentives, she was able to buy her solar system for about one-third of the sticker price. 

In 2019, the federal solar tax credit was 30 percent of the cost of the system. But, Wilkinson notes that Congress has to extend the solar tax credit or it will slowly phase out. 

Without an extension, the savings drop to 26 percent for 2020 and 22 percent in 2021. After Dec. 31, 2021, the federal solar tax credit is set to expire for private installations and will provide a 10 percent tax credit to commercial installations.

Jakob Eriksson says that the incentives were a big motivator in going with solar panels for his Oak Park house in 2018. He said for his family the choice to go solar was based on two factors.

"Environmental concerns are a big part, but also because of the recent SREC (solar renewable energy credit) incentive offered in Illinois making it more financially attractive, plus the 30 percent federal tax credit," Eriksson said in an email. "If you have money to invest, it's a super safe investment with a reasonable, and reliable return."

Mindy Agnew, sustainability coordinator for the village of Oak Park, said that the village has seen a steady increase in solar panel permits. Oak Park has seen roughly 120 solar installations on commercial, residential and municipal properties since 2004. Agnew noted that 79 of those permits were issued in 2019. For the first quarter of 2020, she says about a half dozen permits have already been issued.

Agnew states that Oak Park recently won the gold designation from Sol SMART, a government-funded organization that focuses on helping municipalities become more solar-friendly. 

"Illinois has the largest volume of Sol SMART cities in the country," Agnew said. "In Oak Park, we won the gold designation in large part because a contractor can get a permit in one day."

Steve Cutaia, Oak Park's chief building official, says that the permit process can all be done o-line. He stresses the need for a permit and for licensed installer of solar panels, noting that a structural engineer needs to approve the additional weight of panels on installations. 

"Oak Park has older housing stock, so the weight on a roof, particularly if you have finished attic space, is a consideration, and given our weather we also have to consider the snow load," Cutaia said.

As a village, Oak Park has been a leader in solar panel installations, going back to the 2012 installation of panels on the Avenue Parking Garage, just east of Oak Park Avenue on North Boulvard. 

Agnew encourages homeowners who want to learn more about the solar process to attend the Earth Fest at the Oak Park Public Works Center, 201 South Blvd., on April 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., where solar companies will be on hand to discuss the process.

For Wilkinson and her family, being able to power their house with the sun also provides a sense of empowerment in a time of rising worries about climate change. Wilkinson says that her 5-year old son, Norr, is part of a generation that has a lot of anxiety and fear around climate change. She has read studies that show that taking concrete steps to make environmental choices can be very helpful in calming anxiety.

She appreciates being able to tell her son that they are doing what they can to help the environment, and Sun Power's app helps her in this regard. The app monitors her home's solar panel production in real time and translates the power captured into such measures as gasoline not used, miles not driven, coal not burned, and carbon dioxide emissions avoided.

She calls the app "a nice way to visualize, and it gets my kids involved."

"It makes it real for them," Wilkinson said. "With our friends, there is a lot of talk about kids experiencing anxiety about climate change, and getting kids involved in being a part of the solution is very helpful for this. This way, we can focus on what we're doing."

Currently, she says the solar panels on her home produce about 50 percent of the energy used by her household, and added that during the summer months, her panels will over-produce energy. 

Her system will balance out low-producing winter months and high-producing summer months via meters to cover almost 100 percent of her home's energy needs over the course of the year. Like Eriksson, she says of her system, "I'm thinking of it like an investment. It's better than what I can get in a retirement account."

Eriksson, who used the Oak Park firm Ailey Solar to install his panels, said he was surprised how easy installation was on his historic district home. Even though the panels are visible from the street, because they are removable and not considered permanent, there were no issues with the village in having them installed. 

According to Eriksson, the process only took a couple of days. Today, after being in use for more than a year, he says his family has been able to take stock of the benefits.

In 2019, his solar panels provided 77.7 percent of his home's electricity. He said that the panels were intended to provide 95 percent of the home's electrical needs, but his family added an electric car, which along with weather, might be affecting the output.

Wilkinson is so pleased with her panels that she has become an ambassador and hopes to get others in the neighborhood to join in the solar revolution.

So far, she's convinced one other family to join in, and she says that her next-door neighbor, the Park District's Barrie Center, installed its own solar panels the same week that her panels went up. 

"The park district has been a leader in doing this too," Wilkinson said. "I personally believe this is the direction we're all going to have to go, so it makes sense to do it now."

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