'Do It Yourselfers' Get Creative With Renewable Energy

Sep 21, 2018

In Oregon, Illinois, an old farmhouse just outside of town is a hotbed of alternative energy. It's primarily heated by wood and they have a wind generator, although it’s mainly used for educational purposes.

Keep exploring and you’ll find a solar panel array sitting on the roof of a barn in front of the house, and a newer set on the other side of the yard with a small pasture nestled in the middle, usually home to a few animals.

Bob Vogl stands near a solar panel on his Oregon, Ill. farm
Credit Victoria Lunacek

"We normally have alpacas in here, but I didn’t let the girls out because there's one of them that's real pesty."

That's Bob Vogl. He lives here with his wife Sonia. For them, renewable energy is a way of life. They both taught environmental science for decades, and got their doctorates at the University of Michigan where they helped plan the first events that would become Earth Day.

They haven't slowed down post-retirement. They founded the Illinois Renewable Energy Association, they organize a renewable energy fair and are an active part of other local environmental groups.

More panels sitting on top a barn on the Vogl's land.
Credit Photo by Victoria Lunacek

"When we decided to retire, we said 'okay, we need to do something.' Well, why don't we just keep doing what we did and consider our retirement checks, checks for doing this free work that we've been doing for about 18 years now."

With all of the energy they get from their solar panels, Vogl says that from about May to October they don't receive a single electric bill. They didn't start with that many, but kept adding on as the price of solar dropped and dropped over the past decade.

But from a homeowner or small business perspective, he recommends you start with energy efficiency if you haven't already.

Thirty miles to the east, in DeKalb, Whiskey Acres has taken that advice to heart.

Whiskey Acres is a craft whiskey distillery run by Jamie Walter. It's located on his family's farm that they've been running for around 75 years, currently helmed by his father. A few months ago, they installed solar panels that now provide 100 percent of the electricity for both the farm and the distillery. According to Walter, it seemed like a natural fit.

After you give consideration to the efficiency issue, then it's a very good investment to get into solar at this time. - Bob Vogl, landowner

"I think you're going to see solar systems on farms all throughout the area, because farmers truly are some of the first and foremost environmentalists," he said. "I mean, it's very important to our industry to take care of the land, the soil, the air."

They aren't the only craft distillery with a solar system, but Walter says theirs is one of the biggest in the U.S.

Solar panels at Whiskey Acres overlooking the family farm.
Credit Photo by Peter Medlin

"Basically there's 240 panels here of tier one panels that are 350 watts a piece."

The sound of construction is everywhere at Whiskey Acres. They're adding a new building on the grounds. And along with that, they're looking to expand their solar panels and potentially use their land for a community solar project -- which would add 10 or 20 times more panels.

It would bring locally-produced clean energy to those who don't have the space or money for their own panels, by purchasing a subscription from their energy provider.

One of the other advantages of having such a new system is that Whiskey Acres has technology at their fingertips to keep track of how much energy is being produced or if the individual panels are working up to snuff -- all from an iPad app.

"Let me see if I can pull something up and I’ll even share with you," he said, checking the app. "Since the panels went live seven weeks ago, just to give you an idea, we have saved almost 20 tons of CO2 from power generation or the equivalent of planting about 950 trees."

Energy readout of the Whiskey Acres' panels.
Credit Photo by Peter Medlin

As you get closer to Chicago, North Central College in Naperville is also committing to sustainability. The 3,000-student liberal arts school supports several different alternative energy initiatives -- including solar, solar-thermal and geothermal.

This includes a humongous solar panel array on the roof of Res/Rec, one of the largest buildings on campus. It was partly funded by a grant from the city of Naperville. The building has 1,632 panels, supplying around 22 percent of the building's electricity.

And since it's at a college, it also demands strange peak energy times, said North Central Sustainability Coordinator Brittany Drummond.

"Actually this building, the peak energy use is at 9 p.m. when all the students are back at their dorms and studying away, and using all of their devices and everything," she said.

The panel array on top of Res/Rec at North Central College.
Credit Photo by Peter Medlin

Having this sort of installation at a college also affords unique opportunities for students to learn about alternative energy before they leave, and not just the science students that you'd expect.

"We had cost accounting students do a payback analysis for the project," she said, "and we had Spanish class students come up and learn about the solar panels. We had a PR class do a PR campaign when the solar panels were installed.”

All of these projects have been spearheaded within the last 10 years, and North Central has plans to add even more solar installations on campus buildings in the near future.

Back at the Vogl family ranch, Bob Vogl has hope for renewable energy in Illinois -- especially with the passage of legislation like the Future Energy Jobs Act, which has made it easier for projects to secure funding.

He also says it's helped spur opportunity for the average citizen or small business to invest in alternatives like solar, and live a more sustainable, environmentally-conscious lifestyle.

"This is an optimistic technology," Vogl said. "The research has driven down the cost and they'll continue to drive down the cost. I think it's got a bright future, if I may use the terminology."