Environmental Almanac: Local man doing his part to fight global warming

Last November, Champaign resident Scott Willenbrock read in this column the story of another local man and University of Illinois faculty colleague, Phil Krein, who was installing solar panels on the roof of his garage. For Willenbrock, a professor of physics, the timing of that column was perfect.

That's because he was in the midst of a project to make his own family's two-story colonial home, a conventional structure built in 1929, zero-net energy. In other words, they would generate on-site as much or more energy than they would use over the course of a year.

"It's one thing to build zero-net energy from the ground up," Willenbrock said to me, citing examples such as the Equinox House built by Ty and Deb Newell in Urbana. In that case, he pointed out, you can take advantage of a whole range of opportunities to insulate and weather-seal, and maximize the benefits of direct sunlight. "My question was, what about people who live in older houses, what can we do?"

Willenbrock's question was motivated by his conviction that individuals have an ethical duty to join the battle to limit global warming. And he hopes his approach to answering that question will provide a rational model for others to follow.

The easiest and most economical way to reduce fossil fuel consumption in homes is to reduce the demand for heating and cooling. So Willenbrock began his zero-net energy quest by hiring a contractor certified with Ameren's Act-on-Energy program to evaluate the insulation and weather sealing of his home.

That evaluation turned up numerous opportunities for improvement, and Willenbrock took full advantage of all of them. Insulation blown into hollow walls? Check. Extra insulation in the attic? Check. Weather sealing of basement, sunroom, crawl space, etc.? Check.

According to Willenbrock's calculations, weatherization alone resulted in energy savings of roughly 30 percent.

Willenbrock's zero-net-energy quest also coincided with the need to replace an aging furnace and air conditioner. He and his spouse considered the options together and decided on a geothermal system, which is by far the most efficient way to heat and cool with electricity.

The geothermal system required a larger initial investment, but they anticipate recouping that over time. (Going to all electric was important, since Willenbrock wanted to eliminate all use of natural gas, because it's not renewable.)

The last step in Willenbrock's zero-net-energy quest was to add some renewably generated electricity. And that brings us back to solar panels.

Previously, he had gotten quotes on solar power from a couple of professional solar installers that discouraged him from making the investment. Reading about Phil Krein's DIY project, however, prompted him to investigate ordering panels online and installing them himself.

Willenbrock began his solar project where Krein had, on the roof of his garage. He designed a configuration to make the best use of the space available and then worked by phone with the owner of Oy Not Solar, the same Arkansas-based vendor Krein had used, to order panels. After they arrived, he installed them with help from a handyman who had done other work at the house, and had an electrician tie them into the grid.

Willenbrock then decided to go a step further and cover the south-facing roof on his house with solar panels. Since he did not want to work on a second-floor roof, he hired a local building contractor, New Prairie Construction, to do that installation, again using panels he had ordered himself. Even with the added cost for labor, he still spent about 40 percent less than the quotes he had gotten to start.

I mention above that Willenbrock was motivated to pursue this project by a sense of personal responsibility for limiting global warming, and I suspect many readers of this column share that conviction. I do, too. The Act-on-Energy contractor is scheduled to start work at my house tomorrow morning.

Website, tour available

Willenbrock has created a website that provides the full details of his home project, which you can see at http://physics.illinois.edu/outreach/zero-net-energy-house/.

Better still, you can tour it on Oct. 5 as part of the National Solar Tour day sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society. It's at 1017 W. White St., C, and it will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A number of other locations in East Central Illinois are part of the tour, including the Brickhouses Road development in rural north Urbana — new homes that are all zero-net energy — and the Geil home in Mahomet, as well as the two houses built by UI students for competition in the U.S Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon.

You can see details about the tour at http://www.ases.org/solar-tour/find-a-tour/locations/illinois-tours/.

Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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