Green power avaliable, but costly

Tim Alexander

Midwest Green Energy, LLC, a self-described “clean, alternative energy supplier,” is not yet a household name.

 The company, co-owned by Joe Driscoll and brother Dave Driscoll, who were born and raised in Central Illinois, head the barely two-year-old company. They have but a handful of customers inside the Peoria area. But with President Obama all but assuring future breaks for home and business owners in the form of further rebates and tax incentives for “green” building and remodeling, Joe said he expects MGE’s business to pick up dramatically.

Prez talks investment

“The president has talked a lot about investing in renewable systems,” said Joe, whose company sells and professionally installs solar and “small” wind systems in Central Illinois and parts of Indiana and Wisconsin.

“We saw in 2007 there wasn’t much exposure in Central Illinois to the renewable field. We wanted to bring a business presence that would offer the opportunity to both business and residential customers.”

Driscoll said the “pace of adoption” of renewable energy systems is a little slower in Central Illinois than in windier locales, such as the East Coast and Great Lakes areas or sun-soaked climes in the west, but added, “there is a lot of interest. We’re spending a lot of time raising awareness, both at the individual level, with community leaders and organizations.”

When pitching the advantages of photovoltaic solar panels or vertical access wind turbines offered by MGE to potential customers, Joe said he offers three points in favor of the systems.

“We have conversation about how you can reduce energy consumption, what these systems do to increase your property value and environmental considerations,” he said, adding that consumers and business owners are usually impressed when shown calculations on projected electricity use and savings with the systems.

“However,” he added, “when you start talking about cost for these renewable systems, that can slow things down a bit.”

Fortunately, Joe said, the state offers a rebate program for solar systems — 30 percent up to $10,000 — and the federal government offers a similar tax credit with no cap on what you spend for the system.

The state currently offers no incentives for small wind turbine purchasers, though Joe said he hopes to see that change as early as June when the Illinois General Assembly re-examines rebate regulations for clean energy systems.

State Rep. David Leitch (R-Peoria), whom Joe described as a supporter of small wind systems, is in favor of offering incentives to home and business owners. 

Driscoll said he prefers not to generalize on the actual cost for the company’s vertical access wind turbines — small, roof or pole-mounted units with side rather than horizontally rotating blades — or their solar PV panels.

“Every site has its own unique considerations that can impact cost,” he said, adding that the company will analyze a customer’s property and recommend a suitable setup as part of the consultation process.

The entire process of initializing a conversation with a potential customer to recommending a system and installing it can take two to eight months, according to Driscoll.

“Green” motive

Joe said most customers tell him the most attractive thing about clean energy conversion is the decreased reliance on utility companies the systems facilitate.

But not all.

Martin Hobbs, a science teacher at East Peoria Community High School, had a home built in a new subdivision in Eureka last fall.

MGE installed a solar system that has been operational since Hobbs’ family moved in last October.

“My main reasons for getting the solar panels was not for quick return of investment; I didn’t even have that conversation with Joe. My emphasis was on lessening my carbon footprint and creating clean energy,” Hobbs said.

“I think that’s something everybody needs to be looking at.”

The science teacher explained that a solar panel “takes the sunlight, dislodges electrons and creates the flow of electricity, translating the sun into DC voltage.”

The electricity is used for household consumption, while a geo-thermal system creates heat for water and warmth in the Hobbs household.

“I’m also interested in pursuing a wind turbine for our house,” Hobbs continued.

“The wind complements the solar, because while the sun is not shining at night, the wind is still blowing.”

For now, though, Hobbs said he is “pleased” with how his solar system operates.

“I track every day how many kilowatt hours it produces,” he said.

“The house uses a lot more electricity than I thought it would coming into a new home, so in retrospect I would have liked a little larger (solar panel) array. But that’s why we left room for expansion.”

Hobbs said he is not sure whether he can add a small wind system to his home’s arsenal of clean energy apparatus, saying that he has not gotten around to checking local ordinances. Many communities, along with individual homeowners’ associations, still forbid the devices — citing their appearance, noise and even safety as factors. Homeowner’s associations are also concerned with property values.

Joe said he is willing to go to bat for home and business owners who want to see changes made to challenge these rules and ordinances, and will gladly plead the case for clean energy systems to town leaders and village board members.

Recently, the company helped East Peoria craft an ordinance allowing small wind turbines in homes. An application process and special use permit process was regulations were established with the aid of MGE’s input. 

“It’s an ongoing education and awareness process” Joe said.

“People need to understand that there is a positive property value increase that occurs, and the risk of danger or damage is virtually nil.”

Cost factor

“There is a large up-front investment on the part of the homeowner, and that unfortunately might dissuade some people,” said Hobbs, who used some of the funds from closing on his family’s old house to pay for the PV panels on his new home.

“But there are tax credits and the rebate for solar at the state level that help the systems pay for themselves.”