Thinking of going solar this winter? Here's what you need to know

  • Peter Gorr cites climate change as the reason for installing solar panels on the roof of his Deer Park home. He even charges his electric vehicle with power generated by the solar panels.

      Peter Gorr cites climate change as the reason for installing solar panels on the roof of his Deer Park home. He even charges his electric vehicle with power generated by the solar panels. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Solar panels on Peter Gorr's Deer Park roof cover about 80% of his household energy usage and generate power for his electric vehicle.

      Solar panels on Peter Gorr's Deer Park roof cover about 80% of his household energy usage and generate power for his electric vehicle. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Peter Gorr has a power inverter to transform the electricity generated by his solar panels for use in his Deer Park home.

      Peter Gorr has a power inverter to transform the electricity generated by his solar panels for use in his Deer Park home. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
BY JENNY WHIDDEN
jwhidden@dailyherald.com
Updated 11/30/2022 12:27 PM

Peter Gorr gets all his electricity from solar power.

The Deer Park homeowner has panels on both his current home and his previous home in Palatine. With the help of a subscription to a community solar development, Gorr's solar array powers his home as well as his electric vehicle.

 

Now, he's spreading the word and helping other homeowners make the big switch.

"Importantly for me, and why I do this, is climate change," Gorr said. "As an individual, I changed the source of my electricity to 100% clean, and I use that energy to power my transportation. As a population of one, I did it and I'm laughing all the way to the bank. Imagine as a nation, or as a community, what we can do."

If you're thinking about going solar, there are a range of options to make the energy transition happen. Whether you're considering having panels installed on your home or subscribing to a community solar field, here's what you need to know.

Is your roof ready?

The first step is considering whether your roof is ready to go solar. The Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, asks the following questions: How much of your roof is shaded? How old is your roof? Can the size, shape and slope of your roof support solar panels? Can you install panels somewhere other than your roof?

Rooftop solar power may not be for you if your roof doesn't get enough sunlight. If it's old and needs replacing soon, you may also want to get a replacement first to save on costs down the road.

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In terms of placement, south-facing roofs are ideal for solar panels. East or west-facing roofs are also an option, though they may require more panels to get the same output.

If you have an open space on your property that gets a lot of sun, you can also consider a ground mount system as an alternative.

How many? How much?

Next comes the research: Knowing how much energy your household uses each year is key because it can give you an idea of how many panels you might want.

You can plug your information into online solar calculators for a rough estimate of how much energy a solar installation on your home would generate, as well as your potential one-year savings.

According to Consumer Affairs, the average starting price for a 6 kilowatt system in Illinois is $16,740, a number that would be offset by at least 22% thanks to federal tax incentives. Depending on your location, energy needs and how much you pay out of pocket for your installation, it could take anywhere from five to 15 years to break even.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nicola Brown, a program associate with the Illinois Solar Education Association, said that while solar calculators are a good start, getting an actual evaluation from a contractor is the best way to learn more about potential cost and savings, adding that cost depends on which equipment you choose, how big a system you go with and whether you include a battery.

"One of the big tips from ISEA is that you should get a quote from at least three different installers," Brown said. "Just like any kind of work you're doing at home, you want to make sure that you like the plan that they're doing for you, the equipment that they're gonna use and that the price is right. Those (quotes), of course, are for free. That will give you a much better idea of what's possible for your home."

Along with a homeowner FAQ page, the Illinois Solar Education Association has a directory of local installers, which have each adopted the association's consumer protection business code of conduct, Brown said.

She added that homeowners can attend monthly public education webinars for more information. The presentations are typically hosted by solar homeowners who volunteer to lead the hourlong sessions and answer questions.

A recording of a previous presentation can be found at tinyurl.com/ISEAwebinar.

OK, time to install

While winter is a slower time of the year for solar installations due to the snow and ice, Brown recommends deferring to what the installers say, as you get quotes, on the best time to do it.

"You can definitely start the process any time of the year, as, depending on where you live, there are permits that will need to be obtained and equipment to be ordered before anyone is on your roof," Brown said.

Once you've found an installer, next up is signing an interconnection agreement to get connected to the power grid, getting the necessary permits, and looking into state and federal incentives to see where you can save on your installation.

That may sound intimidating, but Gorr said your contractor should walk you through all of those steps.

"A good contractor is going to lead the homeowner through getting a permit from their town, signing an interconnection agreement with the utility and helping them identify the incentives that are available to them," Gorr said. "A contractor is just going to be the best and most knowledgeable person to talk with."

To learn more about state incentives, you can visit the Illinois Shines program website, which is run by the Illinois Power Agency. The agency also runs a program for low-income residents, Illinois Solar For All.

If you're interested in talking with people who already have solar power on their homes or businesses, volunteer solar ambassadors with the Illinois Solar Education Association -- like Gorr -- are available to talk about their experiences and give advice at tinyurl.com/ISEAambassadors.

Gorr's installation covers about 80% of his household's energy usage. The other 20% is covered by a community solar subscription, which routes electricity from a shared solar development elsewhere in Illinois. Community solar is a good option for those who are interested in solar power but can't or don't want to install their own panels.

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

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