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Solar investment heads to Superior City Council

The finance committee recommended approving plans to offset electrical use in some parks by investing in a community solar garden.

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A rendering of the planned solar garden at North 28th Street and Hammond Avenue in Superior.
Contributed / Superior Water, Light and Power

SUPERIOR — The finance committee is recommending the city invest in Superior Water, Light & Power’s community solar garden to save money on energy costs for parks in Community Development Block Grant-eligible areas in the city.

Parks that would benefit from the savings include 18 Oakes, Allouez, Bear Creek, Benny Peterson, Center City, Kelly and Veterans Memorial.

Councilor Jack Sweeney has been trying to get questions answered about a proposal to power several parks by investing in Superior Water, Light & Power's solar garden.

Councilor Jack Sweeney, chairman of the committee, finally had the opportunity to get questions answered about the company’s varied electrical rates, including a historical perspective; the current cost for individual parks; the company’s responsibility in the 25-year contract; and the quality and output of the solar panels.

“I see this as a pilot program,” Mayor Jim Paine said Thursday, Feb. 10. “If the council becomes convinced of this and can show minor savings in a few parks, I expect becoming customers for the rest of the city.”

Under the proposal the council will consider Tuesday, Feb. 15, the city would invest in 20 blocks (1 kilowatt each) of the 470-kilowatt garden at a cost not to exceed $65,000. The current estimate is $48,816, but block rates won’t be finalized until SWL&P knows the cost for building the solar garden. If the cost were to exceed $65,000, the contract would allow the city to opt out of the program.

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The annual estimated savings would be $3,322 for the next 25 years at current electrical rates or $83,050 over the life of the contract. The city would recoup its investment in the 15th year of the project and save $34,223 over the cost of its initial investment, according to projections provided by SWL&P. Savings are based on kilowatts generated by the solar garden.

“The math (based on current rates) says we should pay this back in 15 years, but in reality, if the rate is higher, we should pay it back even sooner,” Paine said.

The savings would be reflected in the city’s general fund budget the first year the solar garden comes online because the investment would come from the city’s capital improvement budget, he said.

Joscelyn Skandel, SWL&P project manager, said electric rates in 2005 were 5.9 cents per kilowatt hour, about half of today’s electrical rates, and she’s not aware of those rates ever going down.

Sweeney asked what happens if the city doesn’t use all the energy it purchases.

“We’ll review all of the participants on an annual basis,” Skandel said. “If you subscribe to more blocks than you are using, then we would ask you to sell them back to the utility so we could sell them to somebody else.”

The city would also have the option to transfer the savings to other accounts, said Linda Cadotte, parks, recreation and forestry director.

“This is a pilot program, and from what I know now, it should be a very good one,” Sweeney said.

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“Once you really understand this, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” Councilor Tylor Elm said. “I’m really surprised that citizens and businesses haven’t jumped on this because energy prices are only going to go up, and the thought process of not having a utility bill just seems to make sense.”

Skandel said there is no rush for the council to make a decision.

“The garden is currently 48% subscribed,” Skandel said. “We will not break ground on the garden until it’s 75% subscribed. The faster we can do that, the easier it is for us to break ground.”

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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