Think Heliocentrically, Act Locally

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We are building solar at all scales.

Scott R. Tess, Urbana’s Environmental Sustainability Manager

The Big Picture

Solar power from photovoltaic (PV) panels has been around for a long time now, and the technology is definitely ready for prime time. Here, as in many places, solar power is being rolled out at many scales from industrial-sized arrays, through individual homes, and gadgets (See Andy Robinson’s article in the June, 2017 Public i.)

Our area will soon be home to what is probably the largest concentration of solar power generation in the state of Illinois. New large-scale arrays are coming at the University of Illinois (55 acres), Parkland College, the Urbana Landfill(41 acres), and the largest PV array in the state (1200 acres!), coming near Sidney. For comparison, these resources together likely will generate considerably more electricity than the Abbot Power Plant at the University of Illinois, and something like a quarter of the capacity of the Clinton nuclear plant.

With these enormous projects, it sometimes seems that capturing solar energy requires vast resources. In fact, the same technology used in these large projects can be deployed by homeowners and small businesses as well. Ultimately, it is very possible for people to not only use renewable energy, but to own the means of producing electricity. And a home PV system not only provides clean, renewable electricity for the home, it also reduces utility bills, and displaces the CO2 emissions associated with the electricity that is not purchased.

Fully realizing the promise of this technology faces a number of (mostly non-technical) barriers. Costs of solar energy systems continue to drop, but they are still a significant financial commitment, especially up front. Installation costs can be recouped over the life of the system from reduced utility bills and sometimes from selling excess power generated. But this payback requires considerable money to begin with, so it takes a decade or more to recoup the initial costs.

In addition, there are many options for what to install and also how to finance the investment. It can be difficult to figure out what makes sense and what is the best deal. Most people do not have the time or patience to work through the complex details.

Lowering Barriers

In 2017, the state of Illinois expanded its programs with the Future Energy Jobs Act, which includes a variety of incentives and subsidies for renewable energy, including home PV systems. These programs include policies aimed to increase access to solar energy for poorer and undeserved areas, and the development of green jobs.

At the same time, in our local area, the Solar Urbana Champaign (Solar UC) program is working directly to lower the barriers for homeowners and businesses in the cities of Urbana and Champaign, and throughout Champaign and Piatt counties. The program is a partnership between the City of Urbana, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association  and competitively selected solar energy companies.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) is a non-profit organization with a mission to promote renewable energy and sustainable living. Their Grow Solar project promotes the establishment of local solar markets through partnerships with local champions. The MREA provides expertise and educational materials for many cities and local organizations.

The City of Urbana is the local champion for the Solar UC program. The city leads the community outreach and organizes the informational “Solar Power Hours.” The MREA and Urbana also let out bids for the bulk purchase of home PV systems each year. The winning company offers defined products, a range of financing, and discounts for high numbers of purchasers.

At the heart of the program are the two dozen or so “Solar Power Hours.” These sessions, run by the MREA and local experts, provide background information about home solar energy, as well as information about the current purchasing options, and, of course, opportunities to request an evaluation of your home.

Individual property owners may ask the vender for a bid for their home. In some cases, the site may not be suitable (here in “tree city,” not every roof or yard is sunny), and in any case, there is no obligation to sign up. For those who do choose to purchase a system, the cost will include discounts depending on how many systems are sold through the project that year.

Urbana’s Environmental Sustainability Manager Scott R. Tess says that the Solar Power Hours have been well attended and have reached many hundreds of people. These sessions are designed to reduce uncertainty about what is possible and to offer a well-vetted option that reduces the stress from too many choices. Tess also suggests that these community meetings gently change social norms, showing everyone that “people like us” do, in fact, install solar power—even in Central Illinois.

Results So Far

Over the first three years, there have been dozens of Solar Power Hours each year, which have been attended by some 1,000 people. All told, Solar UC subscribers have installed PV on 185 buildings in Champaign and Piatt Counties. Together, these systems generate something approaching two megawatt hours per year. This locally generated clean energy reduces utility bills for the homeowners and displaces something approaching three million tons of CO2 emissions per year, which benefits the whole planet. (Statistics above provided by Peter Murphy of MREA.) Finally, the installation and maintenance contracts have provided dozens of green jobs for local workers.

What’s Next

Solar Urbana Champaign 4.0 is coming this spring and summer. As in earlier years, MREA and the City of Urbana will competitively select a company, and create a contract that includes bulk discounts, financing options, and specified products and services. Through this program, local property owners will have the choice to purchase a system to be installed later in 2019.

As before, there will be “Solar Power Hours” to find out more about solar energy and the Solar UC program. These sessions are free and open to everyone, and there is no obligation. More information is available from

The Future

In this area, there seems to be a distinct spirit of “all of the above,” as we move toward sustainable renewable energy on many fronts simultaneously. Of course, there is still more to do so that everyone, not just property owners, can benefit from renewable energy.  Stay tuned!

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