Couple takes advantage of the green side of the sun

Clare Howard

For Mike DeWalt, solar power is about much more than payback time.

DeWalt, director of investor relations at Caterpillar Inc., evaluates solar in terms of national energy independence.

He has dabbled with solar panels at his home for years, but recently he contracted with Bauer Power for a $58,000 solar installation behind his North Peoria home. Company president Mark Bauer thinks it's one of the largest residential solar installations in the state.

DeWalt designed and constructed his first two solar units himself. The first is a small portable unit that can be used to charge a battery.

The second was large enough to power a freezer in his basement. The third and recent installation can, on some days, supply the 4,000-square-foot home with all its electricity and sell power back to the utility company.

DeWalt is a meticulous record keeper and expects that on an annual basis, the solar unit will supply about one-third of his home's electric usage.

Bauer said another financial benefit from a solar installation is that it increases the value of a home. When carbon taxes are implemented, utility companies will pass that cost on to customers, Bauer said, increasing the cost of traditional forms of energy.

DeWalt said his wife, Kathy, did not want the solar panels in front of the house. That made installation a little trickier because three concrete pilings had to be buried 6 feet into the ground just above the bluff behind the house. Three 14-by-9-foot panels are 9 feet above the ground to a top height of nearly 20 feet. The panels had to be high enough to avoid shadows from the home's peaked roof.

Cost for the solar system was reduced with a 30 percent federal tax credit and a 30 percent state grant capped at $10,000, DeWalt said. That comes to almost 50 percent of the total cost.

"I love technology, but the bonus comes with reducing a portion of the utility bill," he said. "I'm not energy independent, but these technologies can move the country closer to energy independence. That's my real interest."

The DeWalts use a number of other energy-saving technologies in their four-year-old home on a cul-de-sac overlooking the river bluff above Illinois Route 6.

The fastest payback on any project was from simply wrapping the hot water heaters with insulated blankets.

"We installed the blankets in the last two weeks and have already had to turn down the temperature on the hot water two times," DeWalt said. "That's the best payback on a cost of $12."

The home has seven, 200-foot-deep wells for geothermal heating and cooling. The geothermal system also supplies hot water.

Lighting throughout the home is provided by compact fluorescent light bulbs which now can produce either a cold white light or a warm white. There are also three-way and dimmable CFLs, he said.

DeWalt has some LED light bulbs but thinks the technology has a way to go before LED becomes practical for home lighting.

Both CFL and LED technology produce light with less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, but they also produce less heat, which is an additional energy saving during times when air conditioning is used, DeWalt said.

He has carefully tracked his home's electric consumption over the past three years and found a 5 percent drop when CFLs were installed.

Besides a hybrid Lexus in the garage and a deck made of recycled plastic, the DeWalts have a vermiculture system in their basement. Kathy DeWalt puts kitchen waste in the unit. Worms break the waste down into rich fertilizer that she uses on her organic, raised-bed vegetable gardens.

Metering for DeWalt's solar system is connected to the Internet. He can check on his solar generation from anywhere in the world. Looking at his production recently, DeWalt said the system started making energy shortly after 5 a.m. and peaked between 11 a.m. and noon.

The meter also calculates the amount of carbon dioxide he has saved by using solar.

DeWalt's previous solar installation was featured in The New York Times in 2005 in an article about a shortage of solar panels. Bauer said worldwide production has increased and no shortages exist today.

The DeWalts' new units were on track to be featured in a National Geographic television program on extreme engineering, but the film crew got delayed in Nicaragua and have not yet rescheduled.

"It's fun," DeWalt said. "The other day, the meter was spinning backward, producing more than was being used. That was a good day."

Bauer's company is headquartered in Michigan but has an office in Dunlap.

"In Michigan, we don't even have a state rebate for solar installations, but we still sell more in Michigan than in Illinois. People in Michigan are passionate about the environment," he said.

Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 orchoward@pjstar.com.