Monday, January 5th, 2015
Despite benefits, future dims for local solar power
Plans for more fields are unlikely due to higher building costs, other factors
By David Giesige
Solar fields have sprung up in recent years in Mercer County, cutting energy bills and fossil fuel use. However, despite the fields' relative success, plans for additional solar projects are not so sunny.
"They are just pretty cost-inefficient," Celina Mayor Jeff Hazel said. "They are expensive, costing around $12 to $15 million to build and then the power flow from them is so intermittent."
Hazel said Solar Vision LLC, the company that owns the 30-acre facility on city land off Meyer Road, received federal tax incentives to build the field. However, those incentives are no longer available, hurting future solar fields' financial prospects, Hazel said.
The field, which began operating Dec. 22, 2012, produces about 2 to 3 percent of the city's power, Hazel said, but it is not very efficient.
"Some people think that you can operate whole communities with solar power, but it's just not that efficient. Cloudy days and days without a lot of sunlight kill production. They are really only about 15 percent efficient," he said.
The city has a 20-year contract to buy all power produced by the panels. For the first five years, Celina buys electricity at $67.60 per megawatt hour, the next five years at $70 per megawatt hour and in the final 10 years at 85 percent of the city's average electrical cost.
Hazel said the city pays more for solar power than it does for electricity from other sources, but higher costs are not the case in Coldwater.
The Solar Planet-owned solar field that helps power the village's wastewater treatment plant should save Coldwater around $3,000 a year, village manager/engineer Eric Thomas said. A net savings should still result, he said.
"We normally pay DP&L around 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour and we are only paying Solar Planet around 7 cents per kilowatt hour," Thomas said.
Coldwater is able to earn some extra money by selling power back to DP&L if the solar field produces more than the wastewater plant uses in a day.
"Any power that we don't use, DP&L has to buy back from us at a rate of about 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Since we originally paid 7 cents per kilowatt hour for that energy from Solar Planet and are only getting 4.5 cents back, it's not a huge savings, but it's nice to still save money wherever we can," Thomas said.
During the winter months, Thomas estimated that the plant uses more than 95 percent of the power produced at the field, leaving little to no power to sell to DP&L. When sunlight is more prevalent, Thomas said he expects to sell much more but wants to wait a year to have a better feel for the numbers.
Thomas said DP&L gets much of its energy from coal-powered plants. By reducing the amount of power Coldwater buys from DP&L, Thomas said the village is effectively cutting fossil fuel use.
Matt Berry, manager at Midwest Electric, a non-profit, member-owned co-op that distributes electricity to portions of seven counties, said solar panels are not effective at cutting fossil fuel use because their production is so intermittent.
"A utility would still need to operate its fossil-fuel generating plants to ensure power is available 24/7," Berry said.
Due to the panels' high cost and unreliability, solar fields have not become popular, despite the potential to get a good rate offered from Midwest Electric, he said.
"People would get paid the same total rate per kilowatt hour that they pay us for the kilowatt hour we deliver. That means they're getting paid a distribution and transmission rate in addition to generation, when the generation is the only real cost. This makes the net metering rate a real incentive," he said.
Local grids are able to receive the energy, and only small changes were needed to incorporate Coldwater's and Celina's fields, he said.
Despite the positive environmental impact, Berry does not foresee an increase in renewables.
"The only reason the Celina and Coldwater systems were built is because of federal grants and tax subsidies to the developer. Nobody is putting up renewables with their own money," he said.
Hazel and Thomas agree. Both cited being happy with the benefits the respective fields have yielded but did not believe any more fields are coming to the area.
"You can't control the sun," Hazel said. "In the end, they are pretty expensive and just not that efficient."
The historical nature of the local landscape also makes new solar fields unlikely, Mercer County Community Development Director Jared Ebbing said.
"Our landscape is too nice with the churches and farmlands. We are the land of the cross-tipped churches and when companies hear that, they normally pack up and leave. People around here are hesitant to ruin the countryside with big machinery," Ebbing said.
In 2009, Florida Power and Light dropped plans for either a wind farm or solar field when officials learned about the cross-tipped churches, he said.