Claire Johnson and Jill Houser have just finished installing solar panels on Andy Robinson’s roof as part of the Solar Urbana-Champaign 2.0 program. They are members of New Prairie Construction’s solar installation team, and part of a mostly female crew. They and other teams from New Prairie Construction will be installing 446.95 kilowatts of solar on 58 properties across Champaign County as a result of the program, which helped people save on solar through volume purchasing. Robinson not only went solar through the program, he also helped to lead it.
“I’ve thought solar was a cool way to reduce our carbon footprint ever since seeing the 2007 UI solar decathlon house in DC, but it also needed to make financial sense for our family,” said Robinson, who was hired by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) to facilitate the education sessions, called “Solar Power Hours,” for the program. “Now we will offset nearly all of our electric use and it was a good financial investment. New Prairie laid out the panels on the front and back roof in a way that looks like it is a part of the design of our 1920 house. We were especially happy to meet the diverse install crew of local women and men, and a highly qualified refugee.”
“In the 1980’s, Jill and I got our start in construction through the woman-owned company Working Women Construction,” said Julie Birdwell, owner of New Prairie Construction. “When we started New Prairie Construction, we made a commitment to providing opportunities for women. We never regretted it. Our New Prairie women contribute more than just diversity. They help contribute to a positive work culture and maintain a high level of attention to detail and craftsmanship.”
“When we think about the benefits of solar energy, we often picture environmental benefits, of which there are of course many,” said Peter Murphy, Solar Program Manager at Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA). “But what often gets overlooked is the growing number of solar jobs, which are local and by nature cannot be outsourced.”
“One out of every 50 new jobs added in the United States in 2016 was created by the solar industry, representing 2% percent of all new jobs,” according to The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that conducts a national solar jobs census.
“We recently had an opportunity to hire an Afghan national who worked in construction for the US military in Afghanistan,” said Birdwell. “Hiring such a refugee is a way of acknowledging the risks and sacrifices he and his family have made to support our country. In addition, he and our other employees from different cultures and countries provide positive contributions to our work culture, and we feel, our overall product.”
“In the first day of solar production, our kids said that we were vacuuming with sunshine,” said Robinson. “And they are right.”
“The electricity produced by the 446 kW of solar the program has contracted will offset around 639,035 lbs of CO2 being released into atmosphere in the first year alone,” said Scott Tess, Environmental Sustainability Manager at the City of Urbana. “That amount of solar energy will also save almost 10 million gallons of water from use in thermoelectric power plants that run on coal or natural gas.”
The program was administered by the MREA at no cost to the city or the county. MREA has successfully implemented similar programs in other jurisdictions in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin as seen in Milwaukee, Cedar Rapids, Bloomington-Normal, and elsewhere. Solarize programs have taken place all over the country, from California to Maine.
“The solar branch of New Prairie Construction Co. is a natural extension of our commitment to providing high quality, environmentally responsible solutions for homes and businesses,” says Julie Birdwell, co-owner of New Prairie. “Solar Urbana-Champaign 2.0 provides an excellent opportunity for our community to use the power of bulk purchasing to get premium quality installations for a great price. We are excited to work with our neighbors to help increase sustainability and energy independence in Champaign County.”
MREA issued a request for proposals to solar installers in January. A local advisory committee reviewed proposals based on professional certification, experience, and cost. They selected New Prairie Construction Co., based in Urbana. They were chosen as the solar installer for the second Solar Group Buy because of their high-quality solar installations, building science expertise, and emphasis on customer service.
The MREA was incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit shortly after the first Energy Fair in 1990. MREA’s mission is to promote renewable energy, energy effic