Solar in Urbana-Champaign

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CU is heating up with recent solar activity.  Solar panels are appearing on houses, businesses, churches, and in fields across the county. The dramatic drop in installation costs, along with overlapping federal and local incentives, make this a boom time for solar. The recent IL Future Energy Jobs Act continues requirement for utilities to offer net metering, re-establishes the renewable energy credit market auction, and opens possibilities for community solar farms. Net metering allows customers to feed excess electricity back into the grid, thereby not requiring costly batteries.

UI Solar Farm

Last year saw the startup of the University’s new 4.68-megawatt solar farm on Windsor Road near First Street, which produced 2% of the campus electricity in 2016. The University has a 10-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with the developer, Phoenix Solar, LLC., to deliver all electricity produced directly to the campus grid, and the University will own all the associated Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and emission credits. While this 18,867 panel, 20.8 acre farm is the largest in the Big Ten, it is only a beginning for the University, which is working on ways to reach the goal of 32% renewable power by 2020. These include power purchase agreements with a local wind farm, plans for solar arrays on suitable campus buildings and parking garages, and potentially another solar farm in the future. A new power purchase agreement with the Rail Splitter Wind Farm north of Lincoln, IL will provide an additional 7% of campus needs from local wind.

Current campus solar installations include rooftop solar panels at the Wassaja Residence Hall and the Business Instructional Facility, ground-mounted panels at the Building Research Council and Allerton Park, and solar thermal tubes helping to heat the pool at ARC.

Homes and Businesses

The Solar Urbana-Champaign 2.0 group buy program is looking to repeat its success from last year, when 81 homes and businesses took advantage of overlapping federal tax and local renewable energy credits. These overlapping incentives looked like they would end last year, but they were renewed, so there is a second chance to take advantage of them. New Prairie Construction in Urbana has been chosen by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association as the prime contractor for the program, based on their experience, qualifications, and price. This volume purchase program is good through August 31, and site assessments are free for anyone in the county.

“Last year’s group buy resulted in over 80 installations of solar on homes and commercial properties all over Champaign County,” said Scott Tess, Environmental Sustainability Manager for the City of Urbana. “It was one of the most successful programs of its kind in the region. We wanted to build upon the strong interest that we know exists here.”

A listing of local info sessions can be found at:


Faith in Place has been leading efforts to get houses of worship involved with solar by hosting workshops and giving expert advice. Several years back, Faith United Methodist in Champaign put up solar thermal tubes to offset their hot water heater. In 2015, First Mennonite of Urbana put on a 9-kilowatt solar PV array. Earlier this year, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign put up a large 24 kilowatt array that will offset 70% of their electricity use. They are one of the first churches in the region to utilize a power purchase agreement to pay for the system over time and utilize the federal tax credits. The McKinley Foundation is scheduled to receive a similar array with a PPA structure this summer.

Community Solar Farms

The Future Energy Jobs Act that passed last year included language for community-scale solar farms using a type of virtual net-metering. This would be a PPA type of arrangement where homeowners with shaded roofs can sign a long-term agreement to buy their electricity from a nearby solar farm. Several groups have had informal meet-ups around town to brainstorm what a community solar farm could be. Some discussions have included considering using one of the town’s old landfills or other brownfield spaces. More details of how these programs will be enacted are expected from the Illinois Power Authority  in June.

UUCUC 24kW Solar PPA

As of March 29, 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign (UUCUC) has a new 24-kilowatt Solar PV array that will offset about 70% of their annual electric use. The array was installed by Hawk Energy Solutions and Ruyle Mechanical of Peoria and is operated by Hawk-Attollo LLC. The church will purchase all the electricity generated through a power purchase agreement (PPA). This PPA allows the church to pay over time, and the installation to utilize the 30% Federal tax credit, accelerated depreciation, and the Illinois Solar Renewable Energy Credit auction.

There are 81 300-watt panels with Enphase microinverters that cover about three-fourths of the flat roof and are warrantied to last 25+ years. The church recently installed a new white membrane over the old leaking rubber roof. The solar array doesn’t penetrate the membrane, but instead rests on metal feet on rubber mats held down by concrete blocks.

With the power purchase agreement, the church will buy electricity from the solar array at $0.04/kilowatt-hour (kWh) (half the total Ameren rate for supply and delivery). The church has the option to buy out the solar contract in year 7, and the savings from the system is expected to pay for itself around year 12. Factoring in the church’s investments of about $38,000 over 6 years, the effective levelized cost of electricity over 25 years comes out to $0.0475/kWh. This will save over $120,000 over the 25-year lifetime of the system.

An initial estimate is that the solar array will generate 32,000 kWh/year and offset 49,600 pounds of CO2 per year, equivalent to 580 trees per year.  In the first month of operation, the panels offset the carbon of 51 trees, and about $300 of utility bills.

An integral part of this system is the real-time energy monitor on the solar production and on the building use. The energy monitor actually has four sub-meters for the four wings of the church. This shows instantaneously how much energy is saved turning lights off or knowing if the air conditioning or dehumidifiers are left running all night.

This project originated through a workshop with Faith in Place, where Cindy Shepherd and Jason Hawksworth presented how the PPA scenario could work for houses of worship. Of the six congregations in attendance, four received solar bids, and at least two of them are installing systems this year.

(Andy Robinson is a Green UU Church and solar project leader)


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