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Walking the Walk

Here at Combined Technologies, we take sustainability seriously and try to incorporate it in more than just our business. Jerry Thompson, the top dog here exemplifies this practice. He is pictured here with his wife Michelle, and their 2 children Regan and River in front of their house that sports solar panels. Not in the picture is their composting efforts or their hybrid car. They practice what they preach and make the effort to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Below is a recent article from the Chicago Tribune about the Thompsons and their solar panel project. Enjoy.

It’s not that easy going green.
Municipalities continue to straggle in permit process for alternative energy systems.

September 24, 2010|By Judith Nemes, Special to Tribune Newspapers

When Jerry Thompson wanted to put a row of solar panels on the roof of his family’s Mundelein ranch home last year, he thought it would take about three weeks to get a simple building permit from the Lake County Board. He was wrong.

It took closer to 10 weeks, some reinforcements necessary to strengthen the roof and $1,000 in unexpected costs for a structural engineer’s additional calculations to satisfy the board’s concerns.

“I guess they were just treading carefully because I was putting a lot of weight on the roof,” said Thompson, who eventually installed 24 solar photovoltaic panels for electricity and five panels propped up at a 30-degree angle for heating and hot water. “But they left me in the dark about how to deal with the process, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to spend an extra $1,000 on the engineer when you could see his first calculations were accurate. They obviously didn’t have much experience with solar energy.”

To address concerns about the sometimes confusing permit process for alternative energy systems, the Lake County Board is expected to vote this fall on a new ordinance for permitting wind turbines, said David Husemoller, a senior planner for Lake County. He added that an alternative energy task force recently developed a model ordinance for permit guidelines for solar and geothermal energy systems for the board to consider next.

While more homeowners and businesses are considering the benefits of adding alternative energy systems to their homes, the Thompsons’ frustration in seeking approval for their project from a local municipality that had little or no experience in this area isn’t uncommon. Similar incidents are occurring in many smaller cities and villages around Chicago where municipalities haven’t updated their regulations and codes to properly evaluate those types of inquiries.

Chicago, on the other hand, has explicit codes in its building permit regulations as well as a green permit process, which was designed to speed up permit approvals if certain eco-friendly features are in a new building or renovation project, including solar energy systems.

“In smaller municipalities, a property owner applying for a permit to install a renewable energy system on their roof would have no idea what they’d be getting into in the local regulatory process,” observed Mark Burger, president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA),a nonprofit group that represents homeowners, manufacturers and installers. “In some cases, they might be the first ones in their area to ask for it, and they’d be the guinea pigs because there’s nothing in the codes and standards for how to proceed. In other areas, they might have no problem getting their permit request approved.”

He added: “Community leaders have to realize solar and wind power will become more pervasive no matter what, so they shouldn’t ignore this issue.”

Indeed, the annual Illinois Solar Tour, scheduled for Saturday, has more homeowners and businesses showing their solar energy systems to the public compared with last year.

Even Commonwealth Edison is encouraging homeowners in its Smart Grid Innovation Corridor to consider the merits of adding solar panels to their homes. The corridor encompasses Bellwood, Berwyn, Broadview, Forest Park, Hillside, Maywood, Melrose Park, Oak Park, River Forest and the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. In a three-year pilot project, ComEd is inviting qualified homeowners to apply for solar panels and receive credits on their utility bills if they use less energy than they produce.

The good news for homeowners and businesses pursuing alternative energy systems is that more municipalities are addressing the matter when it arises by crafting new standards to clarify what’s considered acceptable for installing solar and wind energy systems, said Burger. Minor tweaking of regulations already on the books is all that’s needed in some instances, he said. In fact, the ISEA and Illinois State University are planning a workshop early next year in Chicago to educate local elected and appointed officials and inspectors about developing and interpreting codes and standards for solar and wind installations.

Schaumburg approved a new ordinance in June that adds simple guidelines to its zoning code for height and location requirements for solar and wind energy systems installed by homeowners and businesses, said Tom Farace, a senior planner in the village’s Community Development Department. The village had no references in its existing codes to renewable energy.

When Brighton Car Wash in Naperville wanted to add a wind turbine to its roof this year, the City Council denied the request because the building code wasn’t clear-cut about how to evaluate the project, said Suzanne Thorsen, a project manager for the city of Naperville and author of a new ordinance that will give better guidance for approving installations of solar and wind energy systems.

“We had been hearing about other municipalities that were regulating wind turbines and solar panels in the last three years, and we decided it was time to get an ordinance on the books specifically for renewable technology,” said Thorsen. The City Council is expected to vote on the proposed ordinance this fall.

Ron Cowgill could have saved himself plenty of heartache last fall if Glenview had specific regulations dictating how business owners can mount solar panels on their buildings. Cowgill, owner of D/R Services Unlimited, a residential remodeling company that also installs clean energy systems, approached the village for a building permit to install six solar panels on the roof of his business. A village staffer told Cowgill he’d have to first submit drawings showing placement of a screen in front of the solar panels to block their view from the street because that’s required for air-conditioning units.

“The screen would have cast a shadow across the panels, rendering them useless because the sun has to hit all parts of it for it to work properly,” he said. “I also didn’t have enough space on the roof to set them back and out of view from the street.”

Cowgill ignored the village’s request and put the panels up in an awning fashion over the front windows of his business, hoping he wouldn’t be fined (he wasn’t). Since then, Cowgill reapplied and was awarded a permit in July after he complied with the commission’s request for minor adjustments to the panels.

Janet Spector Bishop, Glenview’s communications director, confirmed that all mechanical systems are required to be screened so they can’t be viewed from the ground in front of a building, and noted there aren’t any separate requirements for alternative energy systems. However, she said staffers are researching the issue and hope to make recommendations to the Village Board about how to issue permits specifically for newer clean energy systems.

Cowgill agrees the regulations should be updated.

“The village needs new policies for wind and solar installations,” he said. “They need to be classified separately from equipment because it’s not the same as an AC unit you stick on the roof. They also need to train building inspectors to know what to look for to make sure they’re safe up there.”

Lake County could probably benefit from training its inspectors to check on new renewable energy systems in the area. After Thompson’s solar installer completed the job at his home in Mundelein, he was surprised to find the Lake County inspector who showed up told him it was the first time he was inspecting solar panels.

“The inspector was meticulous about checking the wiring to make sure it was up to code, but he didn’t climb up on the roof, and he never went into the attic to check that the reinforcements we promised to make were actually there,” Thompson said.

Illinois Solar Tour

Anyone interested in getting a firsthand look at solar energy systems installed in homes and businesses can check out the annual Illinois Solar Tour on Saturday. The self-guided tour is part of a national event, during which homeowners and businesses will open their doors — and rooftops — and invite renewable energy enthusiasts to check out the variety of systems available.

This year, there are 185 participants in the Illinois tour, up from 150 last year, according to the Illinois Solar Energy Association, which is organizing the event. Close to 80 percent of the tour is concentrated in Chicago and outlying suburbs, and residences make up about 70 percent of the total. The rest are businesses and a smattering of churches, municipal buildings and schools.

At least one site in each geographic area of the state will have a docent available to provide information and answer questions.

Tours can be found online at tour.illinoissolar.org/tour-super-sites.

Representatives from the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute in Alsip will conduct a workshop demonstrating a hands-on installation of a solar photovoltaic system at its school at 8 a.m. (bit.ly/cpVyua).

Free tour books for the statewide event will be distributed at 17 Whole Foods Market locations throughout Illinois and can be downloaded from the ISEA’s Web site at illinoissolar.org.

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