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Solar Homes Expected To Top 100 This Summer

Standing outside their 1920s-era bungalow in Bloomington’s Founders Grove neighborhood, Chris Kaufman and Mark Austill peered out from their wide-brimmed hats at the men working on their roof.

At 10 a.m. on this late June morning, the sun was already beating down, pushing temperatures past 80 degrees and drenching the solar installation crew in sweat.

When the crew is finished, Kaufman and Austill will be able use the 30 360-watt solar panels to harness that power to turn on the lights, cook meals, and send gusts of cooling air throughout their home.

The couple are the some of the first homeowners to have their system installed in the latest round of a local solar group buy program. This summer marks the third year the Ecology Action Center and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association have partnered to offer discounted rates through volume purchasing at residential, commercial and agricultural sites in McLean County. 

"We all use too much power, that's for darn sure. But if we can do anything, this is a small thing that we can do."

Austill said the couple have been interested in solar power for some time—but didn’t think they could afford it. 

“For me I wanted to reduce our carbon footprint, and stop contributing to global warming,” he said. “We’ve done that with our cars. We have a Prius hybrid and an electric Bolt. We also wanted to see if we could reduce our energy costs ... so I had been personally doing research on it for years.”

Kaufman said things changed after they visited a home in Congerville outfitted with a solar array.

“The homeowner was very generous in letting us walk through the whole house and see it, and it was a very complicated house with many different roof layers. I’m sure it was a challenge for the installers,” she said. 

“It was good to see how they could work an installation in, whereas our roof was basically flat, with one small bump, that it’s easier for them to work on,” Austill added.

From there, Kaufman and Austill sat down with StraightUp Solar Project Developer Ky Ajayi to discuss the potential cost and benefit of adding solar to their home. The Bloomington office of the St. Louis-based company is the program’s choice installer.

Ajayi told them an array on their south-facing roof could offset 88% of their energy use. Austill said while they saved up some money for the initial purchase, “We also learned about the different credits that were still available to us to reduce the outlay significantly, so then that made it doable.”

Ajayi said while there can be a significant cost to purchase the system, homeowners will see a return on their investment over the 25- to 30-year average lifespan of the panels.

“Most homeowners are seeing between a 7- and 12-year payback after taxes on their investment in the systems,” he said. “One just has to realize that yes, there is an initial capital outlay, but by the time you monetize your FITC (federal income tax credits) and you get the solar renewable energy credits, you’re looking at anywhere between half and two-thirds of the cost being offset by those credits. So it’s definitely, long-term it’s a good investment.”

Kaufman said she and her husband want to be spokesmodels for solar in Bloomington-Normal.

“We all use too much power, that’s for darn sure, in our little first-world world, but if we can do anything, this is a small thing that we can do,” she said.

She’s even brushed up on some of the science, ready to share her new understanding of electricity with anyone curious about solar.

“The power that hits the modules on the roof is direct current, and what the inverter in the basement does is turn that into alternating current, so that it’s usable,” she explained. “So it’s Edison on the roof and Tesla in the basement.”

Ajayi said StraightUp Solar has installed 750 kilowatts of solar arrays since 2016, or about 75 homes.

“Which means less coal is being burned hopefully, so 75 homes in three years, and hopefully we’ll get another 20 or 30 more this time around,” he said.

And there’s virtually no limit to how much solar Bloomington-Normal could support; Ajayi said every home has the potential to go solar.

“Some have better production factors than others, some are just way too shaded, older parts of Bloomington, Clinton Avenue for example, the trees they have there, you’re not really likely to see very productive solar systems there,” he said. “But in many of the new developments on the outskirts of Bloomington, there’s a lot of potential. The utilities may have some limiting factors on the capacity they can receive from distributed generation sites like what we’re sitting in right now, but realistically, the sky’s the limit.”

Ajayi explained there are outside factors that could make it more expensive for homeowners to purchase solar in the future.

“We’ve heard some information in the last couple of weeks that have indicated the prices of certain components are going up by 8% to 10% as a direct result of the tariffs that have been imposed by this administration on some of the vital components that go into solar systems,” he said. “We are hopeful that the tariff situation will come to a halt soon, that both parties will come to their senses, but we’ve tried to minimize the costs to our consumer.”

For now, the company hasn’t seen a significant impact on its pricing.

“But if things continue the way they’re going or get worse, we may see some price increases,” Ajayi added.

Ajayi said the amount of federal tax incentives available to homeowners is set to drop by 4% for the next two years beginning Dec. 31, adding a sense of urgency for those seriously interested in going solar to take advantage of the maximum credits while they still can.

The Ecology Action Center and Midwest Renewable Energy Association are offering Solar Power Hour information sessions at various locations in Bloomington-Normal through mid-September. Find locations and dates.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.