MORTON — Solar power is becoming a hot topic among people looking for ways to save money and help the environment. 

Solar power is a renewable resource. It’s free, and once everything is set up, the process is completely self sustaining. Communities, farms, businesses and individuals, with the help and guidance of StraightUp Solar, are banding together to shine a light on the benefits and ease of using solar energy.  Together, they have created a group called The Solar Tribe, which hosted the 2016 Illinois Solar Tour on Oct. 1.

Individuals and businesses opened their doors to the public to show the various ways solar power can be harnessed and utilized. StraightUp Solar is a solar integrator, with over 550 installations around this region. In the central Illinois area alone, there were 44 participating sites.  

Burroughs Farm in Morton allowed the public a glimpse at the interior and exterior setup using harness solar energy. On the Illinois Solar Tour website, the 110-year-old family business states they “went solar to demonstrate our family business’s core values of environmental stewardship, innovation and integrity, by producing clean electricity on site. The solar energy savings investment has become a lucrative addition to our primary product, high quality, wholesome, identity preserved grains.”

Project developer  Emma Gilmore from StraightUp Solar filled in as hostess for the owners, who were busy with harvest. Gilmore, who got her degree in renewable energy technology, talked in technical terms about the ways the energy is harnessed, stored and then distributed back to consumers. She showed the brains of the operation, two large invertors mounted on the wall in the warehouse, along with a large screen. The screen shows updates on everything related to the usage of KWH (Kilowatt hours). It shows what has been used this month, average daily usage, what has been used since midnight, projected usage, along with the weather. Gilmore described the solar panels as “amazing, simple, elegant. No moving parts. They just sit there and produce electricity. But they do not store it.” 

She explained how the consumer goes into “an agreement with the utility company that any excess solar energy produced would go to a neighbor or somewhere near. Each solar KWH you produce in excess, you will get a credit in exchange for what you would pay for it.” 

She added that even though the farm produces its own energy, if the power were to go off, as in downed lines or whatever, there would be no power at this location. This is a safety feature, so that no one 

working on the lines would get electrocuted. Gilmore said that the company is a turnkey operation, meaning they provide initial consultation, free quotes, they acquire all permits, and install the equipment so it’s ready for customers to walk in and flip the switch. 

Outside, the panels are installed on the ground. They are tilted to a 30 degree angle (optimum for this region) and mounted to poles that are driven 6 feet into the ground. Since they are not trying to match a roof, they used white panels. The lighter color keeps it cooler making them more efficient. 

Pete Holman of Morton came to view the installation at the farm because he is looking to offset future increase in electricity and also help lessen the impact on the environment. Dale and Nancy Kelley of Heyworth visited the site after having signed a letter of intent the previous night to have solar energy capability installed on their property in McClean County.    

Another site on the tour was in East Peoria. Homeowners Ann Schreifels and Vincent Migeotte are passionate about environmental conservation. They are using solar power for almost everything, including their car. Their water heater is the only appliance not powered by solar energy. They plug their car, a Tesla Model S, into an outlet in the garage every night that is run by solar energy. It will go around 300 miles without needing a charge. Schreifels said when they are away from home, they recharge at “super charging stations” scattered about, that will give a full charge in 5-10 minutes. Because it has no engine, the car stays silent during operation, also cutting down on noise pollution. 

Schreifels and Migeotte had the solar panels installed at the end of August. They have already received a bill that shows their energy cost for the last cycle as zero. They actually produced more energy than they used, so they have a credit toward next month’s cycle. They are still on the grid, which means they are still dependent on the Ameren Power company to store the energy. Schreifels said they could separate from the grid someday, but that is phase 2. The solar panel can collect as much energy as the sun puts out on any given day, but the panels have no way of storing it. That is where Ameren comes in. Since the customer isn’t using as much as they produce, it goes to their neighboring area, then the solar powered site receives a future credit back for that energy that they haven’t used yet. This is called net metering.

“In the summer we will produce more energy than we consume. In winter we will consume more. It should zero out,” said Migeotte.    

Another alternative, both Schreifels and Gilmore mentioned, is a Tesla wall or Powerwall according to the Tesla.com website. This device, described as “a home battery that charges using electricity generated from solar panels” could potentially allow users to “get off the grid” by disconnecting from power companies such as Ameren. 

Schreifels said, “We are doing everything we can to minimize the amount of energy we consume. We are very eco conscience to minimize the amount of emissions. Some people have golf, or a cabin up north. Our hobby is conserving the environment. We have gone vegan, gotten an electric car. So much of the world’s land goes to animals produced for consumption and the food that feeds them. It’s just not sustainable.” 

According to the Solar Tour website, the couple also “will be transforming the yard to native plants to build a better habitat for wildlife and minimize water use.”

Schreifels said of their solar panels and equipment: “They are a passive system; once they are installed, you don’t do anything. It’s a homegrown energy source.” 

Their solar panels are installed closer to the ground, taking advantage of the natural slope in the landscape. This also minimizes the visibility of the panels from the house and patio. 

There are high value Solar Renewable Energy Credit Incentives and a 30 percent Federal Tax Credit for solar energy. Also, during the month of October when you sign a contract to go solar you can save $500 on the cost of a turnkey solar installation. For more information on solar energy, visit straightupsolar.com.