County to build solar arrays
Admin building, Highlands community targeted
— The county is poised to join the ranks of numerous local agencies and businesses that have embraced solar arrays under a new plan that looks to build two different arrays at county-owned properties.
Steve Kuhls, county facilities manager, told the Cecil County Council on Tuesday that the county signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Solar City, one of the nation’s largest solar array builders, albeit one that has not worked on local projects before, last summer. The plan aims to build arrays at the Cecil County Administration Building off Route 40 and at the Highlands Spray Irrigation Site located in the Highlands community near the northern Delaware border.
Those arrays would join three built by Cecil County Public Schools, one by Mt. Aviat Academy, one by the town of Elkton and one by IKEA in the county in recent years.
“(Solar City) is on a national-scale with in-house
expertise and world-class technology,” he noted of the San Mateo, Calif.-based company. “In fact, they recently purchased their own manufacturing plant in Buffalo, N.Y.”
What sets Solar City apart from other businesses is that it is an all-in-one operation, providing financing, installation and maintenance, Kuhls said. Solar City was one of only two respondents to the county’s request for proposals — the other being Sun Power, of San Jose. The business that has principally handled other county projects, Standard Solar, of Rockville, typically works with financier SunEdison to build its projects.
Kuhls reported that the PPA is a 20-year contract with no upfront cost to the county other than the unused land. A fixed cost of 6 and 6.1 cents per kilowatt power produced would be set for the administration building and Highlands sites, respectively, over the course of the contract. Kuhls reported that the county’s current average energy cost is about 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour through a consortium that negotiates energy prices for counties.
On Solar City’s end as the financier, it receives valuable federal tax credits and reaps the difference be- tween the negotiated and market rates on excess electricity sent back to the grid.
The Highlands site is 32 acres and Solar City plans to install more than 8,300 ground-mounted solar panels there covering about 10 acres. The first-year estimated energy production at that site is more than 4 million kilowatt hours, resulting in a first-year savings of about $180,000. Construction is hoped to begin in December and completed in July.
At the Cecil County Administration Building, the plan calls for installing more than 1,600 ground- and roofmounted solar arrays on 1.4 acres of land to the north of the building. The firstyear estimated energy production at that site is more than 726,000 kilowatt hours, resulting in a first-year savings of about $33,000. Construction is hoped to begin as soon as the end of the month with completion by the end of the year.
The fencing off of construction zones during an eight-week timeframe may limit some of the rear parking at the facility that houses the county’s departments, but won’t inhibit any entrances.
With 68 different electrical accounts in four different classifications, Kuhls said county-run facilities are expected to consume about 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity costing about $1 million this fiscal year, meaning these projects would eventually save about 20 percent of the county’s electrical costs.
Councilman George Patchell noted that as the county’s negotiated power costs rise over the coming years, however, the percentage of savings will increase as well.
Kuhls did note, however, that the Highlands site has some issues, including a lack of three-phase electric service which would be required as well as easements from three property owners for the proposed route of electrical transmission lines. To mitigate the impact of those issues, the PPA allows for up to $350,000 in electrical service upgrades paid for by Solar City.
Should the costs of upgrades exceed $350,000, the PPA would allow Solar City to renegotiate the price per kilowatt hour. County attorney Jason Alliance told the council that he does not believe the costs of easements should approach that amount, when compared to prior examples, and initial conversations have been made with the property owners.
Councilman Alan McCarthy asked the assembled officials what the capital cost of the project was if the county were to do it alone, to which they didn’t have an immediate answer. He also asked whether Solar City would upgrade the array as improved technology became available. While Solar City won’t upgrade the solar panels for free, it does have minimum production requirements that it will have to meet throughout the contract, officials said.
Councilman Dan Schneckenburger inquired as to why the array was limited to 10 acres at the Highlands site when three times that much is available. Officials responded that any larger of a project would require approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission, which could be a lengthy and cumbersome process.
“We don’t want to become what is designated as a ‘solar supplier,’” Allison said. “Then we would be required to go through the PSC. So there’s a limit on how much we can generate.”
Schneckenburger also asked if there were any other facilities or countyowned land where more arrays could be built to capture more savings.
“I’m a big lover of using the 12 acres at the (new Cecil County Animal Services shelter off Route 213) or some portion of that,” Kuhls said.
Several council members inquired about placing solar arrays on or near the Cecil County Detention Center, but officials noted that environmental constraints, such as critical areas and floodplains, exist at that site. More sites would be analyzed for appropriate use though.
While he was supportive of the growth of solar projects, Council President Robert Hodge advised everyone to be cautious when estimating potential savings.
“There probably will be significant savings upfront and it will stabilize our electrical costs, but our electric bills will probably still go up over time because the bills are made up of more than power costs,” he said. “There’s a distribution cost, there’s taxes and there’s a lot of extra garbage on electric bills that we won’t be able to control.”
Two more solar arrays, like this one in Bay View, will be built for Cecil County at sites in the Elkton area over the next year, further expanding solar energy production here.