By Cheryl Scott
Ana Garcia Doyle and Jim Doyle’s garage was falling apart, the slab was cracked, and they had received citations. They knew they wanted to add solar panels to a new garage they planned on building behind their Oak Park home. At first, they thought about creating a carport, an open structure that could hold solar panels on top and could be closed off on the alley side, Ana said. However, in order for Ana and Jim to fit enough solar panels to provide 100 percent of their home’s electricity and for the garage to be at an optimal pitch to capture the sun’s rays, the structure would have to be much taller than a typical garage. Therefore, Ana and Jim decided to build a large, two-story garage with a greenhouse attached and a top floor that could be used as an office or a room for community meetings. Their solar garage that they completed in late 2017 will be on display at the 2018 Illinois Solar Energy Tour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22. The Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) is holding the free open house of sites throughout the state to show how residents are using renewable energy at their homes and businesses. Eight of the tour sites are in Oak Park. Ana and Jim will share their story of choosing solar energy for their garage, as well as information on the geothermal system that they installed in their house in 2012.
They will also be able to provide encouragement to those who are considering solar or other renewable energy projects of their own.
“If you’re doing a project anyway, think of it [solar energy] as doable … not to assume that it’s far-reaching and the future. It’s now,” Ana said, noting that everyone has a different financial situation to consider before taking on a project. “If people can investigate it, then they should.”
Ana and Jim first thought about solar panels in 2012, when they installed a geothermal system in their house and got rid of their active gas line. They knew they could eventually provide all of the electricity for their house. The 48 solar panels on the garage provide 104 percent of the electricity that the family of five uses, Ana said. Besides providing power to their existing house, the solar garage provides energy to a greenhouse that they constructed on the sunny south side of the garage, which allows them to extend the growing season of their outdoor garden. The solar energy also powers the second floor of the garage, which they use as an office and a place to hold community meetings.
Ana is the Director of the One Earth Film Festival, stores some of the fest’s supplies and DVDs in the room, and will use the second floor of the garage as an office for the nonprofit. Jim is on the board of the Sugar Beet Food Co-Op. The One Earth Film Festival, Sugar Beet Food Co-Op and other sustainability-focused groups have already held meetings in the second floor office space.
If Ana and Jim generate more electricity from the solar garage than their family uses, their electric bill is 0. If they generate slightly less than they use, they have a small electric bill. Although ComEd does not offer a credit on their bill when they produce more electricity than they use, the Doyles did not focus on this and saw the positive aspect instead.
"If it’s [the energy is] not sourced in coal, then it’s helping the grid mix change, and the better it is for the energy and the Earth,” Ana said.
Some of the other benefits of solar energy, according to ComEd’s “Renewable Energy 101” webpage and Ana, include the following:
Does not cause air pollution or produce carbon dioxide
Sunlight is plentiful
No moving parts
Best energy source in the summer, when air conditioning demand is high
Minimal maintenance and impact on the environment
Although Ana and Jim’s garage is less than a year old, their solar contractor confirmed that maintenance is rarely needed on solar panels. Dorian Breuer, co-owner of Ailey Solar, also said that the solar production estimate he provides customers includes some expected losses from snow cover and cloudy days. Therefore, customers do not need to figure out a maintenance plan for wiping snow off the panels in the winter, as the savings is sometimes not worth the difficulty of that task, Dorian said. Ana and Jim are able to view software that tells them how the system as a whole is doing, as well as how individual panels are performing, in case anything needs their attention in the future or in a snowy winter.
For now, their attention is focused on being pleased with their solar project.
“We’re really happy we did it. We’re really happy we’re raising our kids in this environment,” Ana said. “We’re very fortunate we were able to make this happen. It would be great if this more quickly becomes the standard in more homes and buildings.”
Process of Building the Solar Garage
Ana and Jim spent about eight months to a year on their solar garage project, which started with planning for the large construction project in early 2017. The construction was complete in the early winter of 2017. The solar panels only took a day or two to install, Ana said.
Ana and Jim worked with an architect on the design and involved the solar contractor, Dorian, to see what the optimal pitch, or angle, was for the roof.
“It was very forward thinking of Ana and Jim to engage a solar installer like us during the design stage of their project so that it could be adjusted to maximize the solar aspect of it – both the number of modules and the pitch and other considerations,” Dorian said.
Most of the solar projects Dorian sees are retrofits, or working with an existing structure, rather than solar driving a new construction project, he said.
Dorian said the optimal roof pitch for Ana and Jim was facing south at 30 degrees, but this varies for each customer’s solar project and depends on several factors.
Ana, Jim, their architect, Dave Muriello, and Dorian looked at about 15 different solar scenarios for the roof, such as various configurations or different-sized modules, Dorian said. Ana said “the creative team” found that if they had the panels hang over the roof by a few inches, they were able to fit an extra row of panels and maximize the solar energy. They met the goal of providing 100 percent of electricity to the house. Ana and Jim’s 15-kilowatt (kW) system is expected to produce 20,330 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year, Dorian said. (For context, the average system size Dorian sees is about 7 kW, which is approximately half of the size of Ana and Jim’s system and could produce 7,800 to 9,300 kWh per year.)
Those who are thinking about their own solar project should know that the solar tax credit, which played a factor in Ana and Jim’s project, will only be around for a few more years. The federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit gives homeowners a maximum 30 percent credit for qualified expenditures on solar projects through Dec. 31, 2019, and decreasing percentages after that until the tax credit is phased out in 2022, according to Dorian and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Even if the solar tax credit is phased out, however, residents can still look forward to an average payback time of between five and 15 years for solar projects, depending on a number of factors, Dorian said.
For more information about the ISEA’s Illinois Solar Tour on Saturday, Sept. 22, where Ana and Jim’s solar garage and other renewable energy projects can be seen, go to http://www.illinoissolartour.org/.