Chicago-area solar installer who converts the Ford F-150 Lightning EV into a backup home generator that can be powered by the sun

Ford began deliveries of its F-150 Lightning to the Chicago area last month, and the electric version of the truck introduces a new option with far more utility than all-weather floor mats.

For around $5,000, not including installation costs, you can add a two-way charging system that turns the EV into a backup generator capable of powering your home for three days.

Sunrun, the nation’s largest residential solar power company, developed the innovative charging system with Ford, taking advantage of the Lightning’s huge battery to keep lights on during a power outage, a technology that could have widespread application for the growing electric vehicle industry.

California-based Sunrun is also looking to leverage its charging system to spur adoption of another technology: rooftop solar.

“There is a real connection between people who drive electric vehicles and want to charge their electric vehicles with clean energy,” said Sunrun spokesman Wyatt Semanek. “We hope to get some synergies there.”

Electric vehicles and residential solar power are niche segments in the auto and energy industries, but both are gaining traction in Illinois, fueled by federal and state incentives to convert to renewable energy sources in the coming years. The combination of the two could put Sunrun’s huge suburban Chicago warehouses at the center of the state’s expanding clean energy initiatives.

Illinois has become a hotbed of large scale solar projects in recent years, with renewable energy developers betting on the Chicago area’s rural fringes to build dozens of solar farms to power the power grids of Commonwealth Edison and other utilities.

The state’s solar energy boom is fueled by legislation requiring Illinois utilities to get 40% of their energy from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2030, essentially doubling projected renewable energy used this year, according to the Illinois Power Agency.

Residential solar energy is a major focus of the state’s Climate and Fair Employment Act, a renewable energy bill signed into law by Governor JB Pritzker in September. The bill provides $610 million per year for an adjustable block program that pays residential, commercial and community solar system owners to generate renewable energy fed into the networks of ComEd, Ameren and other utilities.

ComEd pays solar homeowners up front for 15 years of projected renewable energy credits. All ComEd customers finance the program through the standard revolving portfolio line on their bills.

Sunrun entered the Illinois market in 2017, following the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, which set an initial goal for Illinois utilities to source 25% of their retail energy from renewable sources by 2025. The Fair Jobs and Climate Act increased renewable energy. and increased incentives paid for residential solar power generation.

“What the Fair Employment and Climate Act did on the solar side was create a stable funding source to keep the solar industry growing in Illinois,” said Amy Heart, vice president of public policy for Sunrun.

Sunrun has grown to more than 500 employees working at storage facilities in Des Plaines and Bolingbrook. The company has completed more than 17,000 residential solar installations in Illinois in the past five years, making it the largest residential solar provider in the state.

An average Sunrun residential solar installation in the Chicago area is for a 7-kilowatt system that costs about $21,000, before incentives, Heart said. Sunrun also leases systems, but state and federal incentives are for outright purchase only.

The state currently pays about $68 per renewable energy credit, which for a 7kW system would generate about $612 per year, according to Scott Vogt, ComEd’s vice president of energy strategy and policy. Homeowners installing new systems can expect an initial check of approximately $9,200 from ComEd for the projected 15 years of solar energy credits.

The solar system owner would also be entitled to a 26% federal investment tax credit on the purchase, which at $21,000 would mean another $5,460 in savings.

Federal and state incentives reduce the cost of rooftop solar installation from $21,000 to about $6,300. At that price, homeowners would recoup the investment in the solar system in five to seven years, including net metering credits for excess power produced and purchased by the utility, Vogt said.

Once the investment pays off, the typical residential solar homeowner can expect to save about $700 a year in energy costs, Vogt said.

State incentives have already made a big difference in the growth of residential solar in Illinois. At the end of 2016, ComEd had 722 residential solar customers, Vogt said. That number has grown to 27,000 customers as of May.

While the solar growth rate is strong, it still represents a fraction of ComEd’s more than 4 million customers in northern Illinois.

The Illinois Energy Agency, which oversees the Renewable Portfolio Standard, projects residential solar power will double in the state over the next two years.

David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit watchdog group, said rooftop solar has generated increased interest among consumers as prices fall and incentives rise. At the same time, Kolata said there are limits to its widespread adoption.

“Solar power cannot be installed in all residential homes for a variety of reasons,” Kolata said. “The roof may not be right, you may not have control over your roof if you live in a multi-family dwelling, or you may not have enough sun exposure.”

ComEd has a line solar calculator to determine if your home would benefit from the installation of solar panels.

Brutto Thomas, 64, an automotive services manager, leased a rooftop solar system in 2018 for his three-bedroom home in Aurora. Before installing solar power, his electric bill hovered around $250 a month during the summer, Thomas said.

Last month, his bill from ComEd was about $13, with another $55 going to Sunrun for system lease.

“And I turned on the air conditioning,” said Thomas, 64. “The savings are incredible.”

Thomas said that 12 solar panels are installed on the roof that overlooks his backyard. They capture enough sunlight that, even during the long, dark Midwest winter, their combined ComEd and Sunrun bills are about the same as their pre-solar electricity bills.

William Freeman installed a rented solar system on the rooftop of his four-bedroom home in University Park last summer. His ComEd bill and Sunrun lease totaled about $100 in June, about $60 less than the same month last year, before adding solar.

The 60-year-old retiree, who has lived in his home for 16 years, said solar panels are installed on the front and side roof.

“We did it because with the air conditioning running in the summer, the bills were starting to go up a little bit,” Freeman said. “With the panels up there, we kind of cut down on the bills and we were just looking to save here and there, because we’re both retired.”

Kolata said generating savings through a leased solar system can be “complicated” in financial terms. Additionally, solar renters lose thousands of dollars in federal and state incentives that offer a relatively quick return on investment for the buyer.

Solar leasing customers “need to read the fine print” to make sure the energy savings outweigh the financing costs, Kolata said.

“We’re not saying that leasing is always a bad choice,” Kolata said. “I think at the end of the day, if you can buy a system, especially given all the incentives out there, you’re better off.”

For Ford F-150 Lightning owners, combining rooftop solar power with the Sunrun EV charging system creates an additional off-grid benefit.

Under normal circumstances, the sun powers the house, which charges the EV. But when the power goes out, the F-150 Lightning Extended Range Battery System can store 131 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough energy to power a house for three days.

If there’s enough sun, Lightning can keep the lights on much longer, Semanek said.

“People essentially create a microgrid of their own homes, where they are self-sufficient and power them with rooftop solar power during the day,” Semanek said. “Then during the night when the sun goes down, they can draw from those EV battery packs to run their homes.”

Kolata hopes the Sunrun/Ford two-way charger’s backup power capabilities will spur “all electric vehicle manufacturers to provide similar functionality.”

Ford is at the forefront of the potentially transformative energy solution. Several companies are developing aftermarket systems and other EV makers are exploring the technology, but even market leader Tesla, which also sells solar roofs and home battery backup systems, still doesn’t offer two-way charging.

While electric vehicle manufacturing is gearing up, consumer adoption has a long way to go to reach the Pritzker goal of 1 million electric vehicles by 2030. There are currently 34,706 registered electric vehicles in Illinois, or fewer. 1% of the state’s 10.3 million vehicles, according to Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state’s office.

the F-150 Lightning is heralded as a potential game-changer for electric vehicle adoption, packaging the technology into a utility truck that can haul cargo and blow open the doors of a sports car. Ford launched production in April at the Rouge EV center in Dearborn, Michigan, and expects to fulfill 200,000 pre-orders by mid-2023.

The Lightning’s $40,000 starting price is offset by a $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit and a $4,000 Illinois rebate that began July 1 through the Fair Employment and Climate Act.

The combination of solar and EV charging technology can also be a game changer.

“We are moving into a very interesting way of thinking about generating energy and consuming it,” Semanek said. “And I think the automakers are seeing that and they definitely want to jump in headfirst.”

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