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The Sun King

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Mark Burger steps onto the roof of his office building just as the clouds blow away. "Perfect timing," he says, tiny suns now glittering on his shades.

As sales manager of Spire Solar Chicago, a solar-panel manufacturer, Burger follows the sun as avidly as an Aztec priest. This bright afternoon he's walking through his rooftop garden of photovoltaic panels, which are all tilted toward the south, soaking up the light.

Two years ago Burger quit a secure job with the U.S. Energy Department "so I could do this crazy thing": try to make Chicago, this city of cloudy Novembers, one of the country's leading generators of solar energy. His company has already placed solar panels atop six elementary schools, most of the major museums, and two Com Ed facilities. It's about to supply panels for the city's first solar-equipped housing development, in South Chicago, and eventually it plans to build one of the country's largest fields of solar panels on an old landfill near Lake Calumet. It can be done, even here in the gray north.

"We get 80 to 85 percent of the performance that Miami does," Burger says, as a brisk wind snaps across the roof. "While we get a lot less sun in the winter, we get a little more from May through August, because we have more daylight hours and the sun is higher in the sky."

Solar power has long been touted as the energy of the future. Our ultimate furnace is available 12 hours a day on average, and all its energy is free to anyone who wants to buy or build a collector. Burger's mission is to get those facts through the heads of power-company executives and auto engineers who'd like to keep burning fossil fuels until they've incinerated the last lump of coal and the last drop of oil. He once berated a Detroit auto executive for refusing to build hybrid electric-gasoline cars (Burger drives a hybrid, a Toyota Prius). He can't stand the attitude that it's macho to drive a big-ass American car, and he smoldered when the Senate recently voted down higher fuel-efficiency standards. "They just can't conceive of a postpetroleum, postnuke world," he says. "They know abstractly it's going to happen, but they just can't fathom it. Mostly they just think [solar power] is laughable. It reminds me of generals and admirals laughing at what airplanes can do against battleships. This is airplanes."

Burger does have Mayor Daley on his side. The city has set a goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources. Half will come from landfill gases, but the rest will be wind and solar. In 1999 Daley invited Spire Solar, which is headquartered in Massachusetts, to open an office here (it's now in the Chicago Center for Green Technology on North Sacramento). So far nearly $4 million has been spent on solar panels, half of the money coming from the city, half from a '99 settlement with Com Ed.

The first panels Spire Solar put up were on the north-side Frank W. Reilly elementary school, which started a student corporation to sell the energy back to Com Ed. The money that comes in is "nominal," says first-grade teacher Renee Risk, but it's been enough to buy software and upgrade laptop computers. Since then, Spire has outfitted five more schools and six museums: the Field, the Art Institute, the Mexican Fine Arts Center, the DuSable, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. At the nature museum the panels are arranged on the north end of the roof, and visitors can see them from the bird walk. They generate between 1 and 3 percent of the museum's electricity, says Christopher Dunn, the building's technical-operations manager: "You have to look at it as every little bit helps--the amount of greenhouse gas we're saving, and the amount of CO2 we don't emit." The Web site chicagosolarpartnership.com has a gauge showing that as of late April the solar panels had prevented the museum from emitting five and a half tons of carbon dioxide into your sky and mine.

At this point solar panels aren't efficient enough to power a typical modern house. A single two-foot-by-four-foot panel generates just 75 watts of power at noon on the summer solstice, when we get our most intense sunlight. Photovoltaic power also costs nearly four times as much as coal or nuclear power. It can't compete, says Burger, because conventional sources are "just priced too cheaply right now."

Yet solar panels generate the most power during heat waves, when people are cranking up their air conditioners, so they could provide just enough energy to carry us through a hot spell and save us from a blackout. On the spot market, where power companies wheel and deal to satisfy surges in demand, conventional electricity is often more expensive than solar, making the technology cost effective during shortages. "What's neat about it is it matches peak demand perfectly," says Paul Wallace, who oversees Com Ed's environmental projects. "That could keep us from going on the spot market were things to get tight--if we had strategically placed photovoltaic panels around the city. Typically it's the 1, 2, or 3 percent you don't have that'll get you through."

At its greediest Chicago uses 23,000 megawatts of electricity (a megawatt is a million watts). To generate that much power using photovoltaics you'd have to cover 86 square miles--over a third of the city--with solar panels laid out like floor tile. Which might not be as unrealistic as it sounds; when Burger flies over the city he sees "acres and acres of flat roofs on all these warehouses and apartment buildings" and imagines them covered with solar panels. For now, he has a more modest plan in the works: a solar array on ten acres near Lake Calumet that would produce about two and a half megawatts, enough to power between 400 and 500 houses. The mayor is said to want the biggest sun catcher in the world, but that project is several years away.

Spire has also installed solar panels for a few private clients, such as a woman who uses them to power the common areas of her Logan Square three-flat. But even Burger admits they're still a boutique technology. Outfitting a house is a five-figure investment, which means solar would take a lifetime to pay for itself. "People that do this are doing this as a lifestyle issue," he says. "They're not doing it as economics. It's like solid-brass fixtures. Right now, it's an amenity. It takes a long time for this to get into the design community. You've just got to realize this stuff takes time to mainstream into our society."

One of the few developers using solar panels is Claretian Associates, a community-development agency building a 23-house subdivision at 91st and Brandon. They want to make the homes as energy efficient as possible, and they have grants from the city and the state. The systems they're using cost $16,000 per house, so public funding is the only way to put them on $155,000 houses, says executive director Liz Reyes. "It's at no cost to the buyer, and it will save them money on utility bills," she says. "If we can do it on this project, then maybe more and more people would do it."

Even solar's most ardent boosters admit that it's still too expensive for the average business or home owner. Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers teaches solar installation to its apprentices and uses solar panels to power the computer lab and the lights at its Alsip training facility. But so far, the union has done only "a handful" of installations, says electrical-program coordinator Kevin Lynch, for home owners who can afford to be environmentally sensitive. "It's still something that really does need the funding of the federal government," he says. "We're just hoping that not only is this environmentally sensitive, but there will be projects on downtown office buildings."

Spire Solar hopes so too. Last year the Chicago branch lost $2.1 million, and it remains dependent on government contracts for the bulk of its business. Eventually, Burger insists, solar will become profitable: the cells will become more powerful and buildings more energy efficient, which will allow the sun to supply a larger share of their needs. It helps that companies using solar in ten states, not including Illinois, can sell pollution credits to factories and utilities that need to meet their states' renewable-energy quotas.

Someday people may also value the intangible benefits of solar more. Using it can reduce the amount of pollution we emit into the atmosphere, slow global warming, and help wean us away from fossil fuels. And the sun doesn't boycott nations or gouge them for its light. It was these virtues that persuaded Mayor Daley to start buying solar panels for the city's public buildings.

Burger believes that within two decades solar power could produce between 10 and 20 percent of the nation's energy, though he admits that will happen only if the government subsidizes it the way it has subsidized coal and oil. And that will require this country's leaders to recognize the benefits of solar power. "If I have enough solar panels I'm able to generate my own electricity," he says. "I don't have to buy it from anybody."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.

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