With incentives, solar energy's good for environment, business in Lake County
At the end of January, the proverbial switch was flipped and a measured decision by the CEO of World Bioproducts LLC in Libertyville immediately began paying off.
The 450 solar panels covering a sizable portion of the flat roof of the expansive 50,000-square-foot building began converting sunlight to electricity to power the company's industrial-sized refrigeration units, boilers and heating/air-conditioning system.
"On a sunny day, we're generating more than we need," says Bob Ward, a microbiologist by training who founded the food safety company -- his third startup -- about 10 years ago.
That's when his electric meter figuratively begins to run backward and the excess electricity being produced is notched as a credit against future bills.
He won't say how much the array cost but expects it to pay for itself in about five years. And while there is an environmental benefit, the move to solar ultimately was a business decision made possible by incentives that are fueling strong interest in solar as an energy source.
"It's a really exciting time for solar in Illinois, and it's a hot market," said Hannah Mulroy, a planner with Lake County's planning, building and development department.
On a recent Friday, for example, the Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake held a "Solarbration" to mark its expanded solar array expected to save $12,000 each year in energy costs. A state incentive is being used in that project.
Doug Snower, president of Windfree Solar, the Chicago company selected by Ward to design and install his system, said recent approval by the Illinois Commerce Commission cementing details of the Future Energy Jobs Act has let the horses out of the gate.
"Illinois is now the poster child of the solar energy industry in the country," he said. "We're trying to ramp up as fast as we can. That's our challenge."
Ward is using a 30 percent federal tax credit and equipment depreciation, which long have been available, to offset the cost of his system. But the availability of the Solar Renewable Energy Certificate program through the Future Energy Jobs Act cemented Ward's decision.
"You've got to understand the numbers," Ward said.
Significantly lower equipment costs and an exponential growth in the number of skilled installers who can do jobs more quickly than in years past also have contributed to the solar popularity surge, Snower said.
Utility companies are required to produce a certain amount of solar electricity, and the energy certificates allow them to take credit for another entity's production, explained Eric Carlberg, director of business development for Windfree Solar.
"Bob is going to start seeing money back based on how much energy he produces," Snower said. "It amounts to a lot of money -- it amounts to about 25 to 30 percent of the total cost of his system."
Nonbusiness users get an even better incentive and can be reimbursed as much as 60 percent upfront to install a system, according to Snower.
The menu of incentives has opened the market and attracted an influx of solar companies setting up shop in Illinois. There also has been a spike in inquiries about solar projects in Lake County communities, according to Mulroy.
"It's growing a lot faster than any of us expected or prepared for," she said. "It's been across all levels of potential solar users."
The Future Energy Jobs Act, according to the watchdog Citizens Utility Board, is "one of the most significant pieces of energy legislation to ever pass the Illinois General Assembly."
Essentially, it requires ComEd and Ameren Illinois, the state's two biggest electric utilities, to expand energy efficiency programs and lower waste. By 2025, the companies are mandated to have 25 percent of their power come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.
"There are so many projects happening it's hard to keep track," Carlberg said. "The state incentives for solar were very complicated. The new legislation has simplified things."
Hundreds of millions of dollars in funding is provided by consumers through the "Renewable Portfolio Standard" line item under the taxes and fees portion of electric bills. The charge isn't new, but the law makes it easier to collect and invest, according to CUB.