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Get to Know Our Staff: Marjie Isaacson

Marjie - 1Marjie Isaacson’s vintage brick house in West Town doesn’t look all that unusual from the street. But walk around back and you can spot an array of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that made a bit of Illinois history.

Marjie, Elevate Energy’s Director of Quality Assurance and Quality Control, was among the first Chicagoans to install solar panels and, she believes, the first residential ComEd customer to send solar power to the utility.

Back in 2000, solar panels were considered an extravagance, says Marjie, whose system cost about $50,000. But for her, the solar array has always been a source of pride, generating more pleasure than a nice car or expensive jewelry ever could. Her 12 panels are a landmark, visible from the observation deck of the Willis Tower.

“I love the idea that I’m here all day working and even on a hot summer day I’m producing power that other people need,” she says.

Marjie - 4Marjie, who is one of Elevate Energy’s longest-standing employees, doesn’t own a car and limits her personal energy consumption. She devotes her spare time to pursuits such as helping run the Frankie Machine Community Garden, fostering kittens, and feeding chickens at the Farmessori, an outdoor learning space operated by the Near North Montessori School.

Marjie’s values carry over to her work. Director of Research Rachel Scheu describes her as “Elevate’s moral and ethical compass.”

“She has and sets high standards and pushes Elevate to ‘walk the walk’ and meet those standards,” Scheu says.

Marjie, whose full first name is Marjorie, grew up in Clawson, Michigan. She attended the University of Chicago, where she earned her sociology degree and took a job working for a cancer researcher.

She decided to install solar on the roof of her four-unit apartment building in 1999, prompted by a friend who was an installer. The panels power only her unit, and about $17,000 of her investment went toward batteries. That was just before regulations were put in place allowing excess PV power to flow to the grid. Today PV owners can use net metering to receive credit for power they send to the grid and apply that credit to draw electricity when they need it.

But in those early days, having solar power meant being disconnected from the grid.

Well, almost.

“I would get kind of low (on power) in the middle of winter,” Marjie says. “I had the central hall on ComEd. Every so often when I was really scared I’d run an extension cord out there.”

These days, she still keeps the batteries connected to her system in case of a power outage.

Marjie - 6Her early foray into solar led to a new career. Shortly after she installed the panels, she was contacted by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology about working on a project to incorporate solar into an energy buying cooperative. That effort never got off the ground, but Marjie assumed other roles in the organization, which eventually spun off its energy efficiency component into what became Elevate Energy.

Marjie’s job gives her a role in all of Elevate Energy’s operations. “I help make sure the processes and protocols that govern our programs are established and then followed. I am a big troubleshooter,” she says.

Lindy Wordlaw, Elevate’s senior manager for nonprofit and public sector projects, says Marjie’s “extreme attention to detail” sets her apart.

“She often asks the questions you hadn’t even thought of. I am a better writer, researcher, team member and project manager because of Marjie,” Wordlaw says.

Seventeen years after installing her solar array, Marjie marvels that clean energy is still just getting off the ground in Illinois. She has long seen the logic in community solar, which allows residents and businesses to share locally generated power. Elevate Energy is part of a group of organizations that are spearheading a solar map to facilitate community solar in Cook County.

“I don’t understand why it’s not all over the place,” she says.

But Marjie adds that reducing consumption is a key part of the energy equation, even as the cost of solar panels plummets. “Too many people like the idea of the sexy alternative energy and don’t take care of being as efficient and conserving as possible,” she says.

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