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Coming Soon - Berea Solar Farm!

by Nancy Reinhart — last modified Jul 29, 2011 02:50 PM

By Steve Boyce, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth - a KySEA member group

Customers of Berea Municipal Utilities who want to invest in solar photovoltaic panels will soon have an opportunity to do so by choosing to participate in a program called Berea Solar Partners. 

The City is establishing the Berea Solar Farm, arrays of PV panels to generate electricity.  Customers will be invited to become Berea Solar Partners by leasing up to two 235-watt solar panels from an initial array of 60 panels.  The one-time lease fee of approximately $700 will cover a 25-year period.  In return, customers will receive credit every billing period for the electricity generated by their panels.

Program Details:

25 year lease contract

 One $700 investment per 235-watt panel

Panels are located on BMU property with ideal orientation to the sun and no shading

Participants receive a credit on their electric bill for the energy generated by their panel(s)

The farm’s production can be monitored at anytime from home

The Solar Farm is one of three projects supported by a $125,000 Energy Efficiency & Conservation Block Grant to the City of Berea.  The purpose of the grant is to enable Berea to take small but critical first steps in a decades-long movement toward a better energy future. 

One of the other two projects funded by the grant will model improved energy practice in City operations by upgrading lighting in five municipal buildings.  The third project involves starting several energy efficiency programs at Berea Municipal Utilities (BMU) in hopes of making clear how such programs can return important value to the community.  With no history of energy efficiency programs in Berea, getting started in a way that demonstrates their potential value – to the City and its people - is as challenging as it is important. 

Getting back to the Berea Solar Farm, one of the major advantages of the program is that the utility will site, install and maintain the solar panels.  Participating customers will gain access to solar generation at less than $3 per watt, less than the typical installed cost of a home PV system after state and federal tax credits.   It is estimated that at current rates, one 235 watt panel will produce a little over $17 worth of electricity per year.  Assuming that Berea’s electricity rates increase 5% per year on average, the panels have estimated payback in the neighborhood of 23 years. 

Some benefits of the Berea Solar Partners Solar Farm:

• Allows more people at all income levels to participate in solar energy options, regardless of site issues such as shade or directional orientation.

•The program is self-sustaining and supported financially by only those customers who choose to become Berea Solar Partners.

•Participants get peace of mind for supporting renewable energy and receive credit  for the energy their panels generate

•The cost of participating is less than $3 per installed watt, less than the typical cost of installing home solar systems after state and federal incentives

•For BMU to generate some of its own electricity means less money leaving Berea to pay wholesale electric bills to our multinational corporate wholesale supplier

Steve Wilkins, a Berea KFTC member who plans to lease panels, says “The opportunity appeals to me in part because I’d like to reduce our carbon footprint through some solar PV generation, but we have a lot of shade all around our house.  So installing panels at home is not a possibility.  I also expect the price of coal-fired electricity to continue to sky-rocket, so I’m attracted to locking in 25-years worth of PV-generated electricity at today’s cost.  And I just like the idea of supporting Berea’s effort to make this kind of option available to its utility customers.”     

The program is ideal for customers who want local opportunities to invest in clean energy but have homes, apartments or businesses – owned or rented – not well suited for solar installations due to directional orientation or shade.  It also provides an opportunity for those who would like to invest in solar energy but can’t afford the relatively large cost of installing an entire system on their property. 

One of the exciting features of this Berea Solar Farm approach is the extent to which it is scalable, both for the City and for individual customers.  For the City, adding additional arrays to the 60-panel beginning can be done in small steps over time in response to customer interest.    The “pay as you go” model means that any future growth will be funded by customer participation.  Customers who choose not to participate will not be asked to subsidize those who do.

For some customers, the scalability could take the form of budgeting over time to offset some percentage – possibly all - of their electricity use by periodically adding one or more solar panels.  To enable broad participation, customers are limited to leasing no more than two panels among the first sixty.  But beyond that, if additional arrays are added, customers will be free to lease as many as they wish. 

Another major benefit of this panel-by-panel leasing approach is the ease of transferring credit for the electricity generated by leased panels.  Since the panels are maintained in a central location, the electricity they generate need not be tied to a specific address.  In the event a participating homeowner or renter moves within BMU’s service territory, the electricity credits can simply be transferred to the new location.  If the move is to a location outside the BMU service territory, the leaser would need to sell or donate the energy generated by the panels to a BMU customer.  If such a move involves selling a house, the house value could be enhanced to the extent that the panels serve increasingly to lower utility bills as coal generated rates increase over time.  Some may find it attractive to support a local non-profit – a school or church, for example – by leasing one or more panels and assigning the billing credit to that organization.

Another aspect of this approach to solar generation that seems exciting is the extent to which it lends itself to local effort.  We are hoping, for example, that many people in Berea will share Steve Wilkins interest in community members coming together to take greater responsibility for their own energy future. 

If this seems to go well in Berea, there may be other small towns around Kentucky attracted to establishing similar community-based efforts to move gradually toward greater reliance on clean, renewable sources of electrical energy. 

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