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Solar industry tries to shine light on misconceptions

BrandLeavitt president Solar Service Inc. poses for phonear solar hehot water panels rohis facility Niles Illinois Friday Sept. 6 2013.

Brandon Leavitt, president of Solar Service, Inc., poses for a photo near solar heat and hot water panels on the roof of his facility in Niles, Illinois, on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. | Tim Boyle/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 9, 2013 7:33PM

In 1977, Brandon Leavitt — a self-described “child of the ’60s” — installed the very first solar-powered hot water system in Illinois, at his parents’ home in Lincolnwood.

“That system is still working today,” boasts Leavitt, who owns Niles-based Solar Service.

The solar power industry in the United States has less to boast about: It remains stuck in its infancy, producing less than 1 percent of the country’s electricity.

But as Chicago gets set to host a solar power trade show at McCormick Place in October, advocates hope to convince skeptics that solar’s time is now.

“It’s a great opportunity for industry professionals, for policy makers, for electric utilities ­— anyone who sees their business as having a role to play in the solar industry — to come together and really see what the industry is about,” said Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association, in Chicago last week promoting the show.

In 2012, total solar power installations — commercial, residential and utilities — increased 76 percent over the previous year, accounting for about $11.5 billion in total sales, according to industry figures. The industry is predicting 30 percent growth this year.

Illinois represents a tiny fraction of the U.S. solar market, but Hamm and others in her industry say improving technology — as well as cheaper prices for equipment because of fierce competition among American and foreign manufacturers — means there’s plenty of untapped potential here.

One big solar power myth remains a stumbling block: The Midwest doesn’t get enough sun.

“We love to point to Germany, which is the world’s largest solar power [market] per capita — and their weather is closer to Seattle,” said Leavitt.

The industry also has a PR problem, following the collapse of Solyndra, the California-based solar company that declared bankruptcy in 2011 after receiving a $528 million federal loan.

“In every industry that’s going through this maturity growth or life cycle, there are going to be businesses that don’t make it — that has to happen,” said Hamm, calling the Solyndra debacle a “political issue” and not a solar one.

While businesses and utilities accounted for the majority of solar work nationally in 2012 and so far this year, Leavitt said government incentives offer significant savings for homeowners — cutting the cost of a home system in half.

A residential system that can deliver both heat and hot water can be installed for about $10,000 after incentives, Leavitt said. Such a system, which works with a traditional gas furnace, typically cuts a homeowner’s annual heating bill by about a 33 percent and water heating bill by 70 percent, Leavitt said.

If you’re considering installing solar panels, make sure you don’t plan to make roof repairs any time soon. “These systems have 20-plus years of life,” Hamm said. “You don’t want to put up a system, and then pay to have it taken down and put up again.”

The Solar Power International 2013 trade show runs Oct. 21-24 at McCormick Place.


Twitter: @sesposito

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