While it wasn’t a total eclipse of the sun, the Abilene City Commission decided at a study session not to move forward with a plan to use solar energy at its 22 locations.
Finance Director Marcus Rothchild updated the commissioners on the solar power which was pitched by Sunsmart Technologies in July.
“I’m not ready to move forward,” said Commissioner Tim Shafer. “You are free to study it, in my opinion. But I wouldn’t stay up late at night studying it. It’s a year or two down the road before I would probably be ready.”
“My concern is, we tend to jump onto something that looks really, really good and then we find out it wasn’t as good as it was supposed to be. We have done this before,” said Commissioner Dee Marshall. “This will take lots and lots of study before I would be saying, let’s do this. I don’t think we are there yet.”
Mayor Chris Ostermann asked how long Sunsmart Technologies has been in business and how many commercial systems are in use.
“Energy is going to change, probably, I’m guessing, so is this the best thing to do right now?” she asked. “They say it looks good right now but later on if it does change, then we are middle of something we have to be with for 10 to 20 more years and that scares me.”
Commissioner Trevor Witt, who initiated the study session in July wanted the city to continue to review solar power.
“I don’t want this to go off the commission’s radar for two years,” Witt said. “I would like a check in point, maybe six months from now.”
While the savings could be in the millions of dollars over 25 years, it was the unknown expense that put the plan on hold at least for the next few months.
Rothchild said the city would also lose franchise fees received from the electricity the city uses from Evergy. The city receives 6 percent of gross receipts for allowing the use of right-of-ways.
Cost to the city would be either $1.89 million or $1.7 million, depending on whether solar would be used at all 22 location or 21, leaving out the Waste Water Treatment Plant.
“The first 10 years does take away a lot of the risk,” Rothchild said. “They have the full maintenance guarantee. They even have a performance guarantee where if we have an abnormally cloudy season or bad weather, not seeing a lot of sun, not seeing the performance that we expected, they would actually guarantee performance and we would get a check for the difference. So for the first 10 years, it does provide a peace of mind.”
However, for the system to payoff, the solar energy would have to last 25 years.
“While the 10 years look great, obviously we are going to need more out of the system than just 10 years,” he said. “It’s the future years that get to be a little more concerning. There is a lot of unknown there. We don’t know what type of maintenance goes into a solar project.”
Rothchild also said most of the solar projects have been residential and not commercial.
The average residential customer has $400 maintenance annually for a 2 killowatt system. The city is looking at an 869.6 killowatt system for the city’s smallest system. The system for the Waste Water Treatment Plant is a 1,269.6 killowatt system.
“My main concern is future years. What kind of maintenance is going to be needed,” he said. “It’s that time after the service guarantee that I start to get concerned.”
Lon Schrader, director of Public Works, said he has met with Evergy which has an alternative energy department.
He said energy that exceeds use is sold back to the power company.
However, Schrader said he was skeptical.
“Parts of this resemble the first radio read meter system we bid back in 2004,” he said. “In 2004 through 2010 in our first radio read meter system there wasn’t any upgrade or maintenance costs figured into that. We got burned on that back in those days. Once the warranties started to expire, we were facing some pretty significant upgrading costs and maintenance costs.”
Schrader said the largest user of energy is the Waste Water Treatment Plant which is $15,000 to $16,000 a month in electricity.
“Apparently a larger facility like the Waste Water Treatment Plan is not that good of an investment to go with solar power,” he said.
Schrader said he was concerned about the size of the commitment and the length of the commitment.
“Right now it works really well for residents and individuals but I think the commercial users and consumers of this is pretty new,” he said. “Sunsmart has been in business since 2012 so somebody somewhere has already tried this. I would like to see how it’s working for them, someone that has used it for six or seven years. I don’t think we have done that.”
Rothchild said he hasn’t seen any cites that have gone solar.
“I think we would be perceived as somewhat pioneers in this industry at this point,” he said.
“If we look out to the east or west coasts we might be able to find some cities there that could provide us with better information and data than what we have currently in the surrounding area,” Rothchild said.
City Manager Jane Foltz said the topic “opened our eyes to alternative energy.
“We are not sure solar is the way that we need to go, but it has opened our eyes and we have made that contact with Evergy,” she said. “And we know about the franchise fees, the importance of those to our revenue overall.
“I thank you for letting us move on to projects that are already more of a priority but what this does is keeps it on our radar for the future.”
Contact Tim Horan at email@example.com.