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Chicago unveils new rooftop solar discount program

Chicago is offering rooftop solar panel installations through the summer at 25 percent below market rates through a partnership with non-profit Vote Solar.

The idea, announced Wednesday, is to jumpstart solar installations in the city, according to Chicago's Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert. Similar programs have kicked off hundreds of installations in other regions, she said.
 
"We think of this as a way to bring more people into thinking about solar as an option,” she said. "And as the market gets stronger with more installations happening in Chicago, we expect there to be more and more growth."
 
The city is paying nothing under the program, which stems from a World Wildlife Fund grant. WWF contracted with Vote Solar and the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center to administer the program.

Sarah Wochos, co-legislative director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said her organization’s role is to get the word out about the program.

“We have contacted every alderman, every neighborhood group, every book club, every chamber of commerce organization. We see value in trying to help push these types of opportunities into the public space. The more that it happens, the quicker the market grows,” she said.
 
San Francisco-based Vote Solar invited solar contractors to bid and a committee selected Juhl Renewable Energy Systems, Microgrid Solar, Ailey Solar and Kapital Electric as contractors for the upcoming solar installations. The contractors are offering financing to homeowners through Admirals Bank.
 
According to Vote Solar, serving a large group of customers at once helps defray some of the expenses, making it possible to offer prices that are 25 percent below average.
 
“It really makes going solar in this area extremely affordable and that’s what we really needed for this program to be successful was to aggregate the demand of the community,” said Jessie Denver, program director for Vote Solar.
 
The cost to the homeowner depends on the size of the solar installation. Residents of Chicago, Franklin Park, Hanover Park, Oak Park and Wilmette will pay $3.49 per watt. Installations outside the program area will carry an upcharge of up to 30 cents more per watt, according to Vote Solar.
 
By way of translation, a typical 3-kilowatt solar installation would cost about $10,470 at that price, and a federal investment tax credit would lower that cost by another 30 percent, lowering the price to $7,329. At the same time, the program is offering further rebates if the program successfully encourages more than 100 kilowatts of installations.
 
Interested homeowners can visit the program website to register http://www.mygroupenergy.com/solarchicago. Once registered, they will be connected with Juhl Energy / Microgrid Solar to schedule their site evaluation and receive a proposal. Registration does not obligate homeowners moving forward.
 
The program comes on the heels of legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in June that opens up $30 million that the state will use to purchase solar renewable energy credits from existing solar installations as a way to make it easier to pay back upfront costs from those installations.
 
A glitch in the wording of state law has prevented solar power from being bought for Illinois electric customers over the past two years, even though they have paid $53 million into a fund set aside for that purpose. An additional $80 million is expected by fall, according to Illinois Power Agency Director Anthony Star.
 
Several legislative attempts in Springfield to fix the law have failed. As a result, the state is failing to meet its goals for renewable energy purchases. Under the renewable portfolio standard, the state is aiming to have 25 percent of its energy come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2025.
 
Some companies and homeowners have been generating solar power on their own. A billing mechanism called net metering will allow those producers to run their meters backward when they generate more electricity than they consume.
 
In May, lawmakers offered the solar bill as a temporary fix to the problem. A broader energy bill is expected to be hashed out as early as this fall, one that policy analysts say is expected to also incorporate reforms that would benefit the state's nuclear plants, which have been struggling financially against competing forms of energy, including renewables such as electricity generated by wind and solar.
 
In more mature solar markets, companies who install solar installations offer more creative financing mechanisms – such as lease-back programs – that mean residential customers are receiving solar panels at no upfront cost, paying them back through the savings they receive on their utility bills.
 
“There aren’t solar companies who are offering the third-party ownership options – the lease or power purchase agreements are in more mature markets,” said Denver. “When the (solar renewable energy market) does come online sometime in the future we will see those third-party financing companies enter the Midwestern markets like Chicago.”

jwernau@tribune.com
Follow @littlewern Follow @chibreakingbiz

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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