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Push for solar power comes to Chicago's Southeast Side

Not long ago in a small storefront on Baltimore Avenue near the Indiana border a handful of folks got schooled on solar energy.

It was part education, part sales pitch put on by Seth Johnson, policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

“Right now, we see a lot of fluctuation with energy prices. They seem every day to go up and down, up and down,” Johnson said at the office of the Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood in late September. “What you do with solar energy is you lock in that price. You make that upfront investment but then you levelize your cost in the long run.”

Johnson’s been making these types of sales pitches throughout the Chicago area since July.

He’s trying to get people to take advantage of incentives offered by the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago before the October 10 deadline. 

Peggy Salazar is with the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force, which hosted the informational meeting. Her group is on the front lines of banning companies from storing potentially harmful pet coke nearby.

“We’re the ones that deal with the air emissions from the pet coke being stored. We have the BP refinery that is just across the border,” Salazar said. “But the emissions from the actual refinery don’t stop at the Indiana border, they blow toward us.”

Salazar says eventually they want to attract cleaner energy companies to the Southeast side.

“That’s what we would love to see in this area. So, it’s very important that we work hard to at least help direct people to new, cleaner renewable energy,” Salazar said. 

Local resident Maria Gallegos said she was on the fence, but wants to do something to help curb fossil fuels -- especially in her own backyard.

“This is an industrial area. Pollution has been a big problem,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos said the main issue with a solar panel system is the cost factor.

“Even though there’s some incentives, right out of the bat it’s pretty expensive,” she said.

Depending on the solar panel system, a customer can expect to shell out $8,000 to $18,000.

And that return of investment in lower ComEd bills may not be realized for at least seven years.

That may be one reason why only about 100 people have signed up to purchase a solar panel system in Greater Chicago since July, according to Johnson.

But Luis Rojas is giving solar energy a try. Rojas is a construction manager with Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. The 59-year-old lives on Chicago’s Southeast Side on Avenue H.

Rojas said his investment in solar makes sense in the long run.

“I’m really excited about it,” Rojas said. “Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of attention to the efficiency of my house and the footprint that we all leave just by living.”

He’s already installed barrels next to his two-flat to capture rainwater that he uses to water the grass.

Now, after years of considering solar energy, Rojas says it finally makes financial sense.

“Solar PV panels, they were always really expensive to install and the second things was the efficiency rating of them,” Rojas said. “The efficiency looks like it has quadrupled in the last five or six years so I’m in for it.”

A dozen solar panels, each about the size of a flat-screen TV, will be installed on Rojas’ roof in the next few weeks.

The system would normally cost $12,000 but with the state and city incentives, Rojas expects to only pay half that much.

And eventually, it will cut his electricity bill by more than half.

“If you can save money and then at the same time do some good to the environment, well, here’s my two pennies,” Rojas said.

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