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BLOOMINGTON — McLean County residents and businesses interested in buying solar panels now have an extra month to lock in discounted rates.

Group-buy program Solar Bloomington-Normal will take orders through Oct. 31 rather than Sept. 30 to expand its reach and "give folks a little extra breathing room so they don't feel rushed," said Peter Murphy, solar program manager for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

Solar Bloomington-Normal has racked up 144 kilowatts of solar-generating capacity across 15 properties this year, following a 2016 group-buy that included 430 kilowatts of capacity across 30 homes and businesses. The more customers sign up, the lower rates are for all of them.

The program is a partnership between MREA, the Normal-based Ecology Action Center, the city of Bloomington and the town of Normal.

"The commitments are mostly from residential customers, with the exception of Dr. Stephen Pilcher's office in Bloomington," said Murphy of 2018's properties. "We've reached 155 individuals with our educational 'Solar Power Hour' presentations, and about 60 of them are either in the site assessment/proposal stage or have already decided to go solar."

New for this year's program is "community solar," an option that will let renters and others who can't install solar panels buy in on others' arrays. Murphy said that's still in the planning stages, however.

"The contractor selected for this program, StraightUp Solar, is developing community solar arrays called 'ShineMines' in the Central Illinois region that will be operational in 2019. Solar BN participants can sign up now to hold their reservations on the ShineMines and save money by being the first to subscribe," he said.

Upcoming 'Solar Power Hour' events are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday Normal Public Library, 206 W. College Ave.; 1:30 p.m. Sept. 13, University Galleries, 11 Uptown Circle, Normal; 6 p.m. Sept 20 and Oct. 4, Green Top Grocery, 921 E. Washington St., Bloomington; and 6 p.m. Oct. 16, Ecology Action Center, 202 W. College Ave., Normal.

Matt Newell, a 2018 Solar Bloomington-Normal participant and State Farm employee, said he was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get panels installed on the roof of his home in Bloomington.

"When my wife and I realized there was no tree cover on our southern-facing roof, that's when the light bulb went off​," he said. They used Google's online Project Sunroof tool to check.

Newell said he hopes the $20,000 solar array will pay for itself in four years, thanks in part to state and federal incentives. A quarter of Illinois power production is expected to be renewable by 2025.

"It was really the mix of (economic and environmental benefits) that made it so attractive," he said. "There's never a bad time to consider it."

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Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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Normal and McLean County Reporter

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