Evanston aims to ready more public buildings for solar panels


Daily file illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Evanston plans to expand its solar power efforts through power purchase agreements.

Samantha Stevens, Reporter

Solar panels power three of the city’s buildings: the Evanston Ecology Center, Levy Senior Center and Evanston Water Treatment Plant. Now, the city is planning to contract outside developers to increase its solar energy usage.

Evanston plans to use solar power purchase agreements, which involve having outside developers finance, install and maintain the solar panels. In exchange, the city would buy power generated by the panels from the developer, in a system that would minimize the upfront costs of solar power for Evanston.

Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt said solar power purchase agreements are a financially sustainable way for the city to install solar panels.

“Any city facility that has appropriate sunlight and a new enough roof should eventually have solar panels,” Pratt said. “That’s what we’re working towards, and in the past, it’s just been a matter of resource constraints.”

Two key components ensure a structure is solar-ready, according to City Engineer Lara Biggs. 

The building’s roof must be suitable for solar panels, which generally involves being fairly flat and unshaded. The building’s electrical panels must also have enough capacity to use the solar power generated, Biggs said. 

“Instead of worrying about how to install solar, now we worry about how to make our buildings solar-ready so that they’re ready for solar installation,” Biggs said.

The Robert Crown Community Center, completed in 2020, was designed to have solar panels, though they have yet to be installed.

The city is now preparing to solicit proposals from private companies to install these panels.

“Our first focus is on installing solar at the Robert Crown Community Center, which always contemplated having solar on the roof,” Pratt said. “Moving forward for any new municipal roof, we would consider solar.” 

The city installed solar panels on the Evanston Water Treatment Plant in 2010 without a power purchase agreement to better understand the difficulties in operating solar installations, Biggs said. The city quickly discovered it lacked the staffing and resources to stay on top of updates to solar technology.

Adam Perri, head of operations at solar panel installation company WindFree Solar, said his company partners with the purchasing program group Grow Solar Chicagoland.

With residents’ advocacy, he said it’s feasible for Evanston to create more public-sector solar power. 

“It’s definitely possible,” Perri said. “A lot of cities can do it. They just need the will to do so. It takes forward thinking and their citizens getting involved and telling them what they want.” 

In 2018, City Council approved its Climate Action and Resilience Plan, reinvigorating interest in powering public buildings with solar panels, Bigg said. CARP set several environmental goals for the city, including 100% renewable electricity for all properties by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.

The Evanston Animal Shelter is undergoing major renovations later this year — the city’s first major public building renovation since CARP was approved, according to Biggs.

“Using CARP as a blueprint, we’re so excited that the animal shelter will be our first net-zero greenhouse gas mission building,” she said. “For future buildings, we’re looking at how to convert them, but it’s going to take some time to get through all those projects.” 

Older buildings tend to be less compatible with solar panel installation, according to Biggs.

Though retrofitting older buildings may take some time, Biggs said she is optimistic about Evanston’s progress. 

“It’s really exciting to be part of a community that really cares about these things and really asks and demands that the city also adjust its own operations,” Biggs said. “It’s an interesting time and we’re excited about it, but it is just one building at a time.” 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @its_samstevens

Related Stories:

Evanston secures $500,000 in federal funds to expand solar power in low-income households

Northwestern’s solar-powered smart home places 6th in international competition

Evanston’s renewable energy powers homes in other states. Are new solutions local?