Green Scene: Wondering how other businesses are using renewable energy? Get a sneak peek

Thu, 09-29-2011
By: Judith Nemes

A handful of Chicago-area business owners with renewable-energy systems on their premises are inviting anyone curious enough to stop by on Saturday for a firsthand look at how they work.

Fifteen businesses are participating in the Illinois Solar Tour, a daylong event of free, self-guided tours where individuals can get a close-up look at solar energy and other renewable-energy systems installed in homes and businesses. Aside from photovoltaic panels and solar thermal systems, visitors can check out wind, geothermal and passive solar designs. They also can get a peek at a few electric charging stations that homeowners hooked up to solar panels to juice their own electric vehicles. Installers will be on hand at about half of the sites to discuss technical details, according to Michelle Hickey, the event’s program coordinator.

The fifth-annual tour, sponsored by the non-profit Illinois Solar Energy Assn., is occurring simultaneously with other solar energy associations in every state. More than 160,000 people are expected to visit the estimated 5,500 buildings throughout the U.S. that day.

Each year, more businesses are signing up to show off their renewable-energy systems. Close to one-third of the 53 participants in the Illinois lineup this year are businesses and most of them are located in the Chicago area, said Ms. Hickey. Anyone interested in taking the tour can download a map from the association’s website and plan a customized route at his or her own pace. 

Crain’s met with Ms. Hickey to get a preview of what business owners might find if they take the tour on Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Crain’s: What are some of the standout businesses on the tour that other business owners may want to check out?

Ms. Hickey: Fields Volvo (in Northfield) and Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago are two terrific local businesses on the tour. Both have LEED certification sites (awarded to them) from the U.S. Green Building Council. Fields Volvo has a photovoltaic energy system and five vertical access wind turbines in the parking lot. Through those initiatives, they’re saving about 40% on their annual energy costs. Christy Webber has solar thermal, geothermal and a green roof.

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Renewable-energy systems installed outside Fields Volvo

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Solar panels outside Christy Webber Landscapes' headquarters

They’re great examples for other businesses that want to learn about reducing their costs through energy efficiency and the options of renewable-energy systems that are out there.

Crain’s: What’s different about this year’s tour compared to previous years?

Ms. Hickey: In previous years anyone who had a renewable-energy system installed in their home or business could participate in the tour as long as they had equipment that people could see and they were knowledgable to talk about what they had. But they didn’t necessarily have to be there all day.

This year, every tour is a full tour. The homeowner or business must be present and we were more selective about who we included this year.

We were going for quality over quantity and wanted to make sure we had some recent installs or ones that incorporated a multitude of technologies. This time around, people can see solar photovoltaics (to generate electricity) and solar thermal for hot water and space heating. They can see  geothermal for heating and cooling, and passive solar and wind energy systems. What’s new this year is EV (electric vehicle) charging. Some sites might have all of these technologies.

Crain’s: Tell us more about the EV charging stations.

Ms. Hickey: Five sites have EV charging stations. Most aren’t really like the commercial charging stations that we’re starting to see at some parking lots around the city. Doug Snower, who owns WindFree Renewable Energy Co., on North Ashland Avenue, has a commercial charging station with a stand near a parking space, but it’s hooked up to solar panels on the roof of his building.

At the other sites, owners installed solar energy systems to their homes and hooked them up to their EV charging outlets in their garages to charge their vehicles. Those people are truly fossil-free at that point.

Crain’s: What will it take for renewable-energy systems and charging stations to become more prevalent?

Ms. Hickey: Any kind of sustainable initiative is about getting people to shift away from only thinking about sticker price to thinking about the total cost of ownership. That’s a big hurdle. With solar energy, people might look at the sticker price and think it costs way too much money. But if they look at how much it’s going to save them over time, it will encourage them to buy more durable and environmentally friendly things. With solar energy systems, you can think about all those monthly utility bills you won’t have to pay anymore.

Business and homeowners have to find a good installer and they need to learn about all the possible incentives available for them. The installer will help them out with creating a return on investment that works for them. Most businesses should be able to get a five- to seven-year return on investment if they can qualify for some of the rebates and grants available.

With EV charging stations, there’s also the psychological issue about limitations of how far they can go before they need to recharge their vehicle. It’s really important to have these stations in more places to alleviate range anxiety. But the majority of people’s travel distances will fall between the 40- to 50-mile range (before they have to recharge), so that shouldn’t be a problem.

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In other news:

Starting Nov. 1, the Clean Energy Trust accepts applications for its second-annual Clean Energy Challenge. Start-up entrepreneurs in the clean-tech sector and students working on business ideas in Midwest universities can submit an application. Top winners will be awarded a combined total of more than $200,000 in cash prizes so they can continue developing their ideas or grow their  ventures. Earlier this year, the non-profit Clean Energy Trust awarded prizes totaling $140,000 to four recipients among the 70 applicants that competed. Applications can be submitted online at http://cleanenergychallenge2012.istart.org. The deadline is Dec. 5.