Solar Power: Johnson City plans photovoltaic systems in several locations, including some schools

Gary B. Gray • Jan 16, 2012 at 6:32 AM

More than 20 photovoltaic systems will be popping up in the months ahead as the city’s plan to contract with Florida-based ESA Renewables for installation of the solar-powered panels nears the starting block.

A recent Board of Education/ City Commission Facilities Committee played host to a thorough chat on the subject, including a first look at estimated revenues and what options are preferred in this initial 10-year deal in which the city stands to reap about $1.5 million through TVA’s Generation Partners Program.

Johnson City officials want to use ground and rooftop photovoltaic systems that convert solar radiation into direct current electricity. And should the City Commission OK a contract with the company, both entities stand to gain financially through incentives and electricity saved. But officials must get the contractual fine points down quickly, because under the Tennessee Valley Authority program, ESA must have the systems up and operating by April 17.

ESA, which would be responsible for the installation, operation and maintenance of the panels, has surveyed 27 TVAapproved facilities and found several not to be suitable for reasons ranging from shading problems to space constrictions.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola told committee members that 12 of the 27 locations considered were city schools. However, the company found that only eight schools were viable possibilities. For now, these include Cherokee, South Side and Lake Ridge elementary schools as well as Indian Trail Middle School, certain locations at Science Hill High School and Freedom Hall Civic Center. Several others are still in the running.

“After 10 years, we assume their bond will have been paid (to construct, install and operate systems),” he said. “At the end of that period, the contract can be extended twice for a term of five years each. If the company does not want to continue, the city can retain ownership of the panels. The city still would have some incentive to do that, depending on what the rates are at the time.”

The exact locations and type of placements is still being ironed out, but Carver Recreation Center, Winged Deer Park, fire stations and the city’s Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant near Gray seem to be shoo-ins.

“Part of the proposed contract states that (ESA) pay all the expenses on the front end,” Pindzola said. “If the system has to be shut down, and it’s their fault, they are responsible. The company also would be responsible for vandalism, breakage and inclement weather that causes damage.”

School board Chairwoman Kathy Hall voiced several concerns, including possible sight restrictions and parking problems.

“And we would love to see the revenues generated by the systems at schools go back into schools,” she said.

Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin, a former school board member, said he would make sure fellow commissioners were reminded of that fact, but he put an emphasis on the word “prospects” in this statement: “If there’s more revenue coming into the city, the prospects that there will be more income for schools is good.”

The company plans to station two employees in Johnson City throughout the term of the 10-year contract. They also will install large plasma screens in schools with the systems that show in real time the amount of power being used and savings realized.

City Manager Pete Peterson explained that the Johnson City Power Board will send out monthly bills that reflect the payment due in full, and a credit due. At the end of the year, the Power Board will cut the city a check — estimated at about $150,000 a year. The city then would give the company its share, with the remainder going to a revenue-specific line item in the city’s budget.

Under the program, the company would get an up-front credit of roughly 30 percent of the cost of installing the systems. TVA also would pay it 12 cents per kilowatt hour for all electricity generated by the systems that exceed the average usage. In the circle of solar entrepreneurship, this is called “turning the meter back,” and this differential could be significant due to the systems’ efficiency.

When the system generates more electricity than is being used, the excess automatically flows into the grid and is sold to TVA, thus the incentive for the firm that installs and maintains the new systems. Meanwhile, the city would be able to lock in current usage rates and receive a royalty consisting of a percentage of the savings.

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