As fuel prices continue to climb, consumers—including real estate developers and building administrators—are looking for alternative ways to power their buildings while saving money. Solar power is one possible option for such consumers, but issues of practicality and expense have made it a stretch when it comes to workable energy alternatives. It’s been almost forty years since Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels at the White House, hoping to lead by example. The thirty years that followed saw no decline in the steep price tag of solar technology. But the last ten have been different. Now, the incentives for converting to solar thermal are not just about the environment, but economic in nature.
“’Solar’ means different things to different people,” says Brandon Leavitt, president of Solar Service Inc. in Niles. “Up until five years ago, every solar project was hot water. That’s the most economical use of solar power.” But now, he says, solar electricity is also an option. “We like to differentiate: solar thermal or solar electric.” Either way, many buildings are becoming wise to its advantages.
Leavitt estimates that there are already hundreds of residential buildings in Chicago that are using solar power, either thermal, electric or both. While some are new developments, and were designed that way, many if not most were retrofitted to make way for solar.
“The great majority of buildings,” says Susanne Fischer-Quinn, head of corporate communications for Mage Solar USA, “that are equipped with solar are retrofitted. Since there are extremely reliable mounting options available (high wind resistance, low ballasted, and even non-perforating), this ‘retrofit solar option’ is actually also a good way to protect the current roof structure.” In other words, the solar panels on the roof serve more than one function.
While there are plenty of options available, “most of the time, the panels go on the roof,” says Leavitt. Residential buildings, which typically have flat roofs, lend themselves well to deployment of solar panels. As to the frequently-asked question, Will the solar panels damage the roof, the answer is a resounding NO. “We use a system that allows the roof to be maintained without interference,” he says. “The panels are elevated.”