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BLOOMINGTON — When it comes to solar energy in Central Illinois, Shannon Fulton isn't just an advocate. She's a customer.

"For me, I was just completely motivated by the environment. ... but I had to sell my husband on the concept with the financials," Fulton said with a laugh. Fulton, an El Paso resident, is the president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. "It took a while, but he agreed to go forward."

Fulton, who owns a 9.72-kilowatt solar energy system, also is director of business development for StraightUp Solar, a St. Louis-based company that installs similar systems in homes and offices throughout Illinois and Missouri.

StraightUp Solar is the designated installer for Solar Bloomington-Normal, which aims to make more local homes like Fulton's through a group-buy program this summer. Other agencies involved include the city of Bloomington, town of Normal and Ecology Action Center (EAC) in Normal.

“There are people who have valued this above and beyond for a while,” EAC Executive Director Michael Brown said of solar energy, "but this brings it down to a more realistic level for people to get involved.”

Group-buy programs like Solar Bloomington-Normal allow local residents and businesses to pool their resources and install individual solar energy systems at lower bulk rates. StraightUp Solar estimates the average Twin City homeowner could save 20 percent in upfront costs through Solar Bloomington-Normal.

While the initial investment is still expensive — an example from StraightUp Solar estimated the cost of a 5-kilowatt home system at $15,950 after the group-buy discount — customers can receive not only free energy, but tax credits and incentives that reduce the long-term cost of the system.

After those credits, the same home system falls to an estimated $5,250. 

"On a system that will continue to operate 30 years, a seven-year payback is very good," Fulton said. "You're essentially hedging against rising electricity costs."

Scott Burroughs, president and CEO of Burroughs Farms in Morton, said federal and state incentives convinced him to install a 24.9-kilowatt solar system on a new building at the farm. The system went online in January.

“I was not planning to do anything with solar because I thought it was not cost-effective,” he said. "Based on the projections, it looks to have less than a five-year payback with an estimated life of at least 17 years."

Burroughs recommended potential buyers "get past the stereotype (about solar energy) and look at the numbers."

"I think you’ll want to give it a hard, honest look,” he said.

Solar Bloomington-Normal also offers discounts based on how many customers buy systems. Customers of Solar Urbana-Champaign, the group-buy program on which Solar Bloomington-Normal was based, received a 3 percent discount.

Peter Murphy, market development coordinator for the nonprofit Midwest Renewable Energy Association — another Solar Bloomington-Normal partner — hopes the local program could rival Solar Urbana-Champaign.

While Solar Urbana-Champaign attracted about 50 customers, Fulton estimated StraightUp Solar has installed fewer than a dozen systems in The Pantagraph area.

"These programs are a great way to add a lot of solar (systems) in a particular area quickly,” said Murphy, recommending residents attend a Solar Bloomington-Normal information session and set up a site assessment through StraightUp Solar.

Upcoming "power hours" include one at 6 p.m. Wednesday at The Tool Library, at 6 p.m. June 1 at Bloomington Public Library, at 1 p.m. June 4 at Epiphany Farms restaurant and at 6 p.m. June 6 at The Launch Pad.

The group-buy program is expected to end Sept. 30. For more information, visit solarbloomingtonnormal.com.

Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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