Solar array project construction begins at Elkader water wells, treatment site

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Solar arrays are being installed at the city of Elkader's water wells and treatment site. (Photo by Willis Patenaude)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

Eagle Point Solar gave a presentation to the Elkader City Council in May about installing solar arrays at the city’s water wells and treatment site along with the city shop. The proposed project would cut energy costs for the city and potentially save an excess of $385,000 over the next 25 years. 

 

The project met with approval, and after finding an investor, holding pre-construction meetings and, in the words of city administrator Jennifer Cowsert, “processing lots of paperwork,” the project officially broke ground at the water wells and treatment site around a month ago, with the installation of ground piers, racking and modules. The DC wiring should be completed soon. 

 

Work at the city shop will begin after the interconnection agreement with Alliant Energy is finalized. However, according to Eagle Point representative Kent Kraus, once that process is complete, the project will be entered on the construction calendar. 

 

But that hasn’t been the only challenge getting the project off the ground. As with many construction projects, supply chain issues delayed the completion of the water wells site, specifically the availability of key electrical equipment, which has added a month to the overall project. It still has go through a permission to operate phase with Alliant Energy once construction and electrical are complete, which can take an additional 30 or more days, putting the water wells site at full operational status some time in November. The city shop currently has no timeline. 

 

The water wells site was also slowed due to the site’s steep incline, which the solar array sits on, but that challenge was easily overcome. 

 

One of the key aspects of this project is the need for an investor who will assume all the financial risk, meaning the city does not have to invest money into the project beyond paying for staff time to oversee it. 

 

According to Kraus, Elkader has invested “zero dollars into the project and will not have any capital expenditure” for the projects. 

 

“The city will simply buy the energy produced by the arrays at a rate less than what they are currently paying the utility. They do have an option of purchasing the arrays outright after seven years; however, they are not obligated to purchase the arrays ever,” Kraus explained. 

 

The investor for this particular project, KMDE, LLC out of Dubuque is well known to Eagle Point, having invested in several of the previous power purchase agreement (PPA) projects the company has built. A PPA, simply explained, is a “form of financing where a third party investor pays for the construction of the array(s), and would own, maintain and insure the array(s) through the term of the contract. The city would simply enter into an agreement with the investor to purchase the energy being produced from the array(s) at an agreed upon rate.”

 

According to Kraus, Eagle Point has a “great relationship” with KMDE, creating a seamless process. Kraus added, “The group has a target return they are looking for and we put together numbers that will make sense for the city, the investment group and us as an installer. Everyone needs to win for the PPA to work.”

 

Part of that win for the city is cost savings, but there is also an environmental aspect and, of course, “setting a good example for the community,” Cowsert said. 

 

Kraus echoed this sentiment, stating the utilization of solar energy “has many other benefits beyond just the cost savings.” 

 

According to Kraus, moving to solar promotes a “progressive minded image,” which has the potential to attract sustainability minded businesses and residents to the community. 

 

“As the city becomes more educated on solar, they can work toward updating community solar permitting processes to make solar more accessible for everyone in the community. Additionally, they have an opportunity to educate the community and demonstrate the sustainability initiatives for the city,” Kraus said. 

 

Moreover, there are environmental impact benefits. According to Kraus, the two arrays being constructed will offset over 3,289 tons of CO2 over 25 years, which is the equivalent of planting 82,648 trees, or offsetting the consumption of 361,843 gallons of gas, the burning of 3,453,954 pounds of coal or the charging of 370,765,480 smart phones.

 

Another environmental issue is the concern over recycling damaged solar panels, however, this doesn’t appear to be that serious. Kraus called a damaged solar panel a “rare occurrence,” especially with the durable tier 1 panels Eagle Point installs. Secondly, the solar panels are made of over 90 percent recyclable material, and while Eagle Point works with a local recycler, Kraus noted a 2020 study done by the International Energy Agency Photovoltaics Power System showed “disposing solar panels in landfills is unlikely to have adverse impacts on human health.” 

 

When it comes to replacing and repairing damaged panels, that responsibility remains with the investor, while Eagle Point will perform the annual inspections of the array structure, modules and electric components. Kraus also noted that Eagle Point will monitor the arrays and has alerts set to notify if the system is not performing up to expectations. 

 

“We have thousands of arrays in service. We monitor every project we have installed. These projects consistently perform within plus/minus 3 to 5 percent of our projected production. We have thousands of happy customers and our number one source of leads is referrals from existing customers. And, specifically to a PPA like the city has entered into, the risk to the city is close to zero, and there are obvious financial and environmental benefits,” Kraus said. 

 

Cowsert said the city’s experience has been positive and communication has been good with Eagle Point. “It’s one of the reasons the city selected Eagle Point for the project, especially knowing how well they worked with surrounding communities, specifically Marquette, who exclaimed they were ‘very happy with the results,’” she said. 

 

Additionally, Cowsert mentioned how this experience could potentially lead to revisiting plans to convert other city buildings or look at other cost saving projects.

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