“If someone’s building a new home, to me it’s a no-brainer. You put in geothermal and put in the solar panels, and it’s part of your mortgage. And there you are! You’ve got your energy. If you can, get a battery backup.” This, according to Ron and Joyce Marten, is the easiest way to become energy-independent.
But, of course, not everyone these days has the ability to build their home from the ground up, nor can everyone afford to install in a pre-existing home both of these energy systems in one fell swoop. Retrofitting is more of a challenge, but Ron Marten will tell you that it can be done. They built their home in the 1980s. At the time, they had gas forced air heating. “Our heating went out on us. We needed to replace it and we wanted air conditioning because we didn’t have it at the time. We looked at something that would be very environmental and such, and it would probably cost us between 5,000 and 7,000 dollars to put a good heating system in.” Any way you cut it, it was going to be expensive.
“We came up with the idea of geothermal. We tossed that around a little bit and we got some quotes. In 2006, we went ahead and put in geothermal. We have 5 vertical wells out here.” At first, the City Council wouldn’t allow them a permit for these wells, “mainly because the county water was afraid of what we were going to do to the ground water. We had to convince the City Council that we were doing nothing to the ground water except take heat from it.”
Essentially, the way geothermal works is this: About 150 feet down, the ground is about 55 degrees. “So, in the wintertime, we’re pulling up 55 degree heat, and we warm it to 75 degrees or whatever we need it to be, and in the summertime, we’re pulling up 55 degree heat and all that’s happening is that the fan is running over that and we’ve got air conditioning.”
Ron adds that “the added bonus is that in the summer, the system is pulling heat from the house and putting it into our water heater, so it helps to heat our water.”
When I asked the Martens how much the installation of the geothermal system, complete with heat converter, cost, Joyce said, “It’s an investment,” both in time and money. Before even installing the unit, the contractor wanted to make sure that the house’s environmental status was good. “You can’t have a rattle-trap house. If you do, you lose all your heat.” Ron agreed. “When people ask about the solar panels and the geothermal, I tell them right off the bat that the biggest bang for your buck is to insulate, insulate, insulate. Once you’ve done that, once you have a tight home and windows, and it’s insulated, then you can look at the next step.”
“In 2006, when we started to make this investment, it cost us about $25,000. However, we got about a $3,000 rebate from the state, which brought it down. Then there was the fact that we had to replace the system anyway. It would’ve brought it down $6,000. Now we had an investment of $16,000.” At this point, the Martens were only using gas for cooking and drying clothes. “Our electric bill would go up because we’re using electric to help heat our system. There’s a backup heating system with geothermal so that when it gets just too cold, electricity can come on and help heat the building if necessary. It doesn’t often happen that way, though.”
It took about five or six years to pay for the geothermal. Prior to that payoff, about four years after the installation of their geothermal system, the Martens started looking at solar, which, after its installation, allowed them to give up NICOR gas. That was a savings of about $4,000 a year.
The initial investment in the 42 solar panels they installed was about $54,700. Joyce stresses that you don’t need to install that many panels up front. “If you put in the base of the converter that converts the sunlight to usable energy and then put in maybe 8 panels, then you could build on that until you have a sufficient number of panels to generate a lot of the electricity.”
The Martens realize that their panels were a big investment, but as Joyce points out, “You figure if people go out and buy some luxury car to drive around for that amount of money, and sometimes it doesn’t have to be too luxury, it could just be one of those bigger vans that families buy for themselves when they have kids, and you drive it off the lot, it’s already depreciated. It takes five or six years to pay off the panels. We figure the panels don’t depreciate like that, and in the meantime we’re getting payback because we aren’t buying gas or anything.”
Ron adds, “Now we did get a federal tax rebate, and that’s 30%,” adding that “those rebates took about $16,000 off, which left about $34,000 that we had to come up with to break even.” Then there was the energy savings of about $4,000 per year. A check of the current IRS website revealed the Federal Government tax credit for both solar and geothermal projects, similar to the Martens’ projects, is 30% through 2019, decreasing to 26% through 2020, and then 22% through 2021.
Finally, there are the Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC) they earn. Ron also contacted a company called SREC, which is “like a broker that takes your energy credits and sells them and takes a small percentage of it. Then we get the money for credits purchased.” Joyce explains, “It’s like a commodity.”
Ron explains, “For every 1,000 kilowatts, that’s one SREC. We do about 11 SRECs a year. Some years we were selling as low as $9 an SREC, and other years I had a contract for about 3 years for about $35 an SREC. This year, SREC contacted me that we’ve got a deal going with the state of Illinois, and that’s for $180 per SREC, for a five- year contract. We jumped in right away, and after fees were taken out, we’re getting about $150 per SREC. With this new contract, we’re down to zero” cost for their entire energy bill—heating, cooling, cooking, washing, water—everything. The SRECs offset the cost of all their energy. “We’re getting almost free energy.”
So saving money on their energy bills is a big incentive for the Martens, but the most important reason they’ve chosen to invest in alternative energy is that they feel it is the right thing to do for the environment. Ron says, “Our converter not only records our daily input, and accumulative input, but also shows how much CO2 has NOT been put in the atmosphere due to our solar array. As of today, it registers 137,950 lbs. This, of course, does not include the geothermal, which is not burning fossil fuel, so that figure could be higher yet.”