Where Alternative Energy Meets Alt-Country | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Where Alternative Energy Meets Alt-Country

Ryan Boyles can record your band or make your electric meter run backward.

by

1 comment

Nancy Bardawil does her best to minimize her carbon footprint. "I drive a Prius and bike everywhere in the summer," says Bardawil, a director who's done music videos for Motley Crue and Bon Jovi and will be making her feature debut with the indie drama Greta, starring Hilary Duff, this year.

So last summer, when cooling the 3,700-square-foot third-floor rental unit in her East Village three-flat was driving electric bills on the unit up to $500 a month, she started looking around for a solution. "It's expensive," she says, "and I knew there was a non-carbon-producing way to get electricity. It's just something I had to do."

Bardawil's friend Elise Zelechowski, who owns the Brighton Park nonprofit ReBuilding Exchange, introduced her to Ryan Boyles, a local musician and recording engineer who'd just started a new company called Windy City Solar. With an electrician, Boyles installed 350 square feet of solar panels on the three-flat's roof—enough to generate about as much energy as the third floor consumes.

Now on sunny days, when the solar array is generating more electricity than the unit needs, it feeds the excess power back into the grid, and Bardawil's electric meter spins backward. Since November, benefiting from Illinois' year-old net-metering law, she's been saving an average of $100 a month on the unit's electric bills. "It really makes you happy every month," Bardawil says. "Not only are you getting money back, but you're making improvements to up the value of the property."

In addition to designing and installing the array, Boyles helped Bardawil file applications for a 30 percent state rebate and a 30 percent federal tax credit on the project. "It's like having a lawyer who covers your bases," Bardawil says. "He's patient—and he's a cutie."

Those traits no doubt serve Boyles in his other chosen field as well, as a multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer. Among other gigs, he plays bass in the local band Judson Claiborne, and he did some engineering and played piano on Neko Case's new Middle Cyclone.

Now 31, Boyles grew up in "a bluegrass-playing family" in rural downstate Salem, where his father, a manufacturing executive, and mother, a teacher, preside over an expanse that includes woodlands and prairie as well as some farmland they rent out to neighbors. "I grew up outdoors three seasons of the year," Boyles says. "I know my parents' land like the back of my hand. I can go out there at night without a light and walk through it."

For as long as he can remember, Boyles and his family have worked to restore woodlands on the property and create habitat for native animals to return to. For a 4-H project when he was 12 he planted an acre of native bluestem grass and prairie flowers. Late every winter he still goes back to burn the land with his dad, killing off weeds and invasive species. "Only the prairie plants are able to withstand it," Boyles explains.

His twin interests in music and ecology kept pace with each other at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, where he studied biochemistry and played in a bluegrass band called Butcher's Legs with singer/guitarist Joshua Alford. But after graduating in 2001, Boyles moved to Boulder, Colorado, where his girlfriend at the time was in grad school. There he got a job with the startup Renewable Choice Energy, which sells carbon offsets and renewable energy credits and had "just moved out of a basement into proper offices," he says. "I got really passionate about renewable energy in Colorado." The state was just implementing solar energy incentives—years ahead of Illinois.

He was learning a lot, but the balance was off. "I missed the music that had always been a part of my life," he says. In 2003, after a year and a half of 70-hour weeks at Renewable Choice, Boyles moved to Chicago to join Alford in the roots-rock band High Hawk. "I moved here for music, but it was a slow road," he says. To pay the bills he worked for West Town contractors Unlimited Woodworks, and the following year opened his own contracting business, specializing in outdoor living areas and interior carpentry.

Meanwhile he'd been studying solar energy design and installation through Solar Energy International, a nonprofit in Carbondale, Colorado, that offers seminars and supervised team projects around the country. He participated in SEI solar installations downstate, in Phoenix, and in New Orleans, where in February 2007 he was part of a team of ten that reinstalled a solar array that'd been dislodged by Hurricane Katrina from the roof of a building-materials-reuse business.

Later that year Boyles incorporated Windy City Solar, which he runs out of a one-room office in a Humboldt Park two-flat, upstairs from the recording studio he shares with the landlord. He's since phased out the carpentry work to focus on solar electric.

Last spring the Illinois legislature sowed the seeds for a solar boom in Chicago by passing a "net-metering" law, under which people with solar arrays with capacities up to 40 kilowatts are credited at retail rate for any electricity they feed back into the grid up to the value of their electric bill—ComEd spokeswoman Rachel Gerds compares it to rollover minutes. (Energy producers with capacities between 40 kilowatts and 2 megawatts are compensated for as much energy as they produce, but at the wholesale rate that Com Ed pays its power suppliers, and use a "dual metering" system, with one meter for incoming electricity and one for outgoing.)

Windy City Solar is one of a handful of Chicago companies designing and installing solar photovoltaic, or PV, systems, which are composed of 5-by-2.5-foot panels that convert sunlight into DC electricity. An inverter then turns it into higher-voltage AC power. There are a lot of variables involved, Boyles says, but a solar array to power the typical Chicago households he's encountered takes up about 300 square feet and costs about $36,000. With those government incentives, the price drops to $15,000, which at a savings of $76.50 per month (based on current electric rates of $.17 per kilowatt hour and usage of about 450 kilowatt hours a month) would pay for itself in 16 years. The faster electric rates rise, the sooner the savings exceed the cost of the solar array.

According to Gerds, since the net metering program was instituted in April 2008, 69 customers have signed up for solar net metering and 21 have signed up for wind net metering. Another 253 customers participate in dual metering.

Renewable energy consultant Mark Burger, president of the nonprofit Illinois Solar Energy Association, says "the new regulations for net metering are a significant improvement over what existed before, but they're only one part of the renewable energy portfolio that's needed to make solar and small-scale wind a major market in Illinois." If utilties were required to get 1 to 2 percent of their energy from each of three sources—solar electric, solar thermal, and small-scale wind—and the government were to extend consumer incentives for five-plus years, he says, Illinois could increase solar electric installations tenfold and build an economic infrastructure for renewable energy in the state. "Doing this over a long period of time would result in enough nonpolluting energy being harvested in the state without going outside of our borders" to have a measurable impact in reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants.

Richard Mignogna of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission says since that state formalized net metering as part of its renewable energy standard, participation has increased from "a handful of hobbyists" to a more widespread phenomenon. Colorado requires that 5 percent of its energy be generated from renewable sources; 4 percent of that is required to be from solar electric.

Windy City Solar is of course facing the same economic downturn that has walloped the construction business nationwide, but as the season starts Boyles hopes increasing environmental awareness and government incentives will give him an edge. He's hopeful that the renewable energy industry will gain enough of a foothold to be self-sufficient without the incentives within three to five years. "We use so much electricity in every home, and such a huge part of that is from nonrenewable sources, that even if we can put up enough renewable energy onto the grid to compensate for the growth in population it would make a giant impact," he says.

This year Boyles plans to begin marketing Windy City Solar to businesses as well as home owners. He says his biggest challenge is simply making Chicagoans aware that solar technology is available and, with the incentives, relatively affordable. "There are a lot of people in Chicago who want to do renewable energy but don't know how to bring it to fruition."

He's also training, through SEI and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, to design and build solar thermal systems, which use sunlight primarily to heat water. And last month he traveled to Barcelona for six days to get a closer look at that city's use of solar integrated design, which incorporates solar panels into heat-reducing shades, awnings and other building features.

Ironically, just as Windy City Solar's getting off the ground, Boyles seems to be more in demand than ever as a musician and engineer. After High Hawk's Joshua Alford moved to Austin, Boyles started playing in the band Low Skies, out of which Judson Claiborne formed. He also plays in Hotel Brotherhood, a band based in Marfa, Texas, and he's recently recorded the new Judson Claiborne album, Before Midnight Scholar, the Hotel Brotherhood record Missing Scenes and the Fruit Bats' forthcoming LP.

"I'm getting busier with both," he says. "I'm starting to be able to work on a great number of music projects, and some bigger projects. At the same time, I'm starting this business, which is a commitment to provide this service to the people in the city. Solar is a relatively new thing for Chicago. I think in the next year or two, as people understand more about the economics, it will become more popular, and that will translate into more work for me. I'd like to eventually grow the business to where I have some employees I've trained and where I have a balance between the two."v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com.

Tags

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment