Workers for Ailey Solar install panel mounts on a Chicago rooftop. (Photo courtesy Ailey Solar)
Workers for Ailey Solar install panel mounts on a Chicago rooftop. (Photo courtesy Ailey SOlar)
Workers for Ailey Solar install panel mounts on a Chicago rooftop. (Photo courtesy Ailey Solar)

Two years ago, Dorian Breuer waited six months to get permits to install solar panels on his home on the south side of Chicago.

At that same time, Breuer was in the heat of the battle to close Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, as a leader of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.

Today the coal plants are closed and Breuer, along with Jack Ailey, another leader in the campaign, run one of the four companies chosen to implement the city’s Solar Chicago program offering discounted solar installations through a bulk buy.

The program is administered by the organization Vote Solar, in partnership with the Environmental Law and Policy Center and World Wildlife Fund. It is meant to jumpstart residential rooftop solar energy in Chicago, and if projections go as planned it will mean a raft of new orders for Ailey Solar, founded by Breuer and Ailey two years ago.

Meanwhile, the long wait for a solar permit that Breuer endured has been cut to one day thanks to the city’s Solar Express program launched in October. Between these and other initiatives and developments, Chicago officials and clean energy boosters say things are looking bright for solar in Chicago.

Easing permit pain

The Solar Express program means that residential solar installations (under 13.44 kW) can now get permits approved in one day — instead of the previous 30 days or more.

“Before, 30 days was probably pretty speedy. Turning that into one day has been quite an accomplishment,” said Chicago chief sustainability officer Karen Weigert.

The program, funded with a $750,000 U.S. Department of Energy SunShot initiative grant, has also reduced the permit fees for such installations by a quarter, from $375 to $275. The city has partnered with the utility ComEd to facilitate the interconnection needed for residential solar.

Solar Express also helps connect residents to Integrys, the company supplying Chicago’s power under municipal aggregation, to apply for net metering so electricity from residential panels can be sold back to the grid.

“I think the cost as well as the time that it would take for people to go through the permitting process was a barrier,” said Illinois Solar Energy Association executive director Lesley McCain. “It was very difficult on the installers before – they would have somebody interested in an installation and then the process became a barrier – it would just take the wind out of people’s sails.”

Weigert said there were about 20 applications under the new permitting process between October and June, and she expected an uptick in the summer.

The city has also taken steps to make things easier for those developing larger solar installations on commercial, industrial or other big buildings. Measures include a spring 2013 administrative order that allows developers to determine the wind load on rooftop installations by using national standards rather than a lengthier process under the Chicago building code.

Rooftop hassles

Breuer said the quick turnaround on permit approval is a big improvement. But he thinks the time it takes to prepare a permit, which still involves up to 60 pages of paperwork, is little different than when he installed his solar panels.

The permitting process can involve submitting photos of rafters, which can mean cutting through drywall or ceiling to “create an inspection opening,” as the 55-page document explaining the “easy permit process” terms it — then adding supports if the roof is not up to snuff. Breuer said a number of interested clients decided against solar once they heard about these requirements, which can add several thousand dollars to the cost of a solar project “and turn it into a construction and rehab project” rather than a simple solar installation.

Given that solar panels are relatively light compared to loads of snow or other weight that can be put on a roof without triggering a roof upgrade, Breuer and Ailey think it makes sense to relax the roof structure requirements.

“The structural issue is one of the weakest parts in the streamlined [permitting] process generally across the country right now,” said Larry Sherwood, administrator of the Solar America Board for Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs), a collaborative focused on improving building codes, utility interconnection and other policies. “Really what’s needed is more specific testing and research to develop some simplified processes for the structural part that are similar to what exist for the electrical part of the installation.

“It’s a challenge to integrate something like that with the existing building permit system, it’s somewhat daunting for the local jurisdictions.”

Bulk buy

The Solar Chicago program lets people with single-family homes and duplexes in the Chicago metropolitan area purchase solar installations at a price of $3.49 per watt of capacity, about 25 percent below market rates, according to program officials.

They will be served by four companies: Juhl Energy and Microgrid Solar will be responsible for design and engineering, while Ailey Solar and Kapital Electric will acquire the equipment and do the installation.

Potential participants must express their interest by enrolling online by the end of September.

So far more than 1,100 people have signed up, surpassing the program goal of 750 and sparking a new goal of 1,500. Program leaders estimate that about 10 to 20 percent of those who enroll will actually complete the purchase. That means Ailey Solar might install up to 150 projects in the next year; they are already hiring more staff to prepare.

“There was a lot of pent-up demand for solar, but it’s kind of a confusing market when it’s a nascent market like Illinois – people don’t know what contractor to go to, what the price is, there are a lot of gray areas,” said ELPC co-legislative director Sarah Wochos. “This does reduce cost, and it also provides customers with a trusted contractor who has been vetted through a stringent process.”

The companies for Chicago Solar were chosen after Vote Solar issued an RFP and a team of volunteer evaluators reviewed proposals based on price, experience, product quality and customer service. Some installers have said they are concerned about the low price setting a bar that is hard to meet, and diverting business from the open market.

But backers hope that by spreading awareness of solar, the Solar Chicago program will create demand going far beyond the participants in the bulk buy. Ailey and Breuer hope that after expanding their capacity they’ll continue getting residential and also commercial and industrial jobs.

“Solar is contagious – when somebody in the neighborhood gets solar the other homeowners are always very interested,” said McCain, who hopes the bulk purchase can be a model for other cities and towns. “We will have demonstrated that the installation cost that can happen with a bulk purchase is viable. So can we take the show on the road and do this with other places around the state?”

On other fronts

Solar energy in Illinois got a potential boost with the signing June 28 of a bill (HB 2427) that authorizes the Illinois Power Agency (IPA) to spend up to $30 million specifically on procuring solar energy. The power agency buys power on behalf of the state’s utilities.

Under a quirk of how the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard was set up, it is difficult for money to be spent on renewable power – even though $53 million sits in the Renewable Energy Resources Fund for this purpose. So the one-time procurement facilitated by the new law is seen as a boon for solar. The procurement will be carried out in coming months through the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Under the state’s RPS law, the money can be spent on SRECs – solar renewable energy credits – from both utility-scale operations inside or outside Illinois, and distributed residential installations, which must be in the state.

The Illinois Solar Energy Association has run a relatively small SREC aggregation program wherein SRECs from residential solar installations could be sold. There has been great demand for that program; Breuer applied but didn’t make it in through first-come and lottery systems.

Wochos said the IPA procurement will “absolutely” be a driver of solar energy in the region. Solar companies that operate residential solar installations rather than homeowners themselves would apply for the SRECs, and “national residential solar companies are taking a look at participating in IPA’s process,” Wochos said. “I think it’s the first step in the IPA making a commitment to solar.”

Comparing rates

Ailey worries that relatively low electricity prices are hampering enthusiasm for rooftop solar in Chicago, “but electricity prices aren’t going down any time soon,” he said hopefully.

Illinois State University recently unveiled a database developed in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that they say will likely encourage more people to go solar. The U.S. Utility Rate Database aggregates information entered from 45,000 different rates from utilities nationwide.

The database, developed over three years with a grant from the SunShot initiative, allows ratepayers to do a more accurate comparison of possible savings if they install solar energy, according to Illinois State Center for Renewable Energy director David Loomis.

“Oftentimes it’s very hard to read your utility bill and get an accurate picture of ‘how am I being charged, what is that for?’,” said Loomis. “Absent this database being created there was really no good way for people to analyze the prices they were being charged for all the different rates that make up their total bill.”

Weigert said that with such developments, residential solar is bound to keep spreading in Chicago.

“We’ve got plenty of sun, looking at other markets, Chicago actually figures pretty well,” she said. “It’s not the southwest, but it’s a place where solar can be a good option for a lot of folks.”

The ELPC, involved in the Solar Chicago program, is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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