Solar energy

Using renewable, alternative solar energy is a no-brainer in our sun-drenched state

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The Marana Town Council approved a resolution 5-2 to assess and possibly implement a solar-energy system that could save the town up to $5.7 million over 25 years.

Since 2007, the cost of electric through Tucson Electric Power and Trico Electric Cooperative has gone up 37 percent, while solar has dropped 31 percent, said Marana Deputy Town Manager Jamsheed Mehta at the Aug. 15 town council meeting. The town’s electric bill is currently a little over $1.1 million a year. 

Mehta presented a proposal for a 20-year contract with SOLON Corporation, the large-scale solar company based in Tucson that installed solar panels at the Marana Health Center and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department Administration Office.

Marana currently has 136 electric meters running things like traffic lights, parks and town facilities. The town identified six that could save the town money if switched to solar: the Marana Municipal Complex, Ora Mae Harn District Park and adjoining pool, Crossroads at Silverbell District Park, the Marana Operations Center, Marana Wastewater Treatment Facility and the new police facility currently under construction. 

SOLON Vice President of Sales and Marketing Luke Alm laid out the costs and savings attached to three options for future development.

One option is to lease the installations from SOLON, who would own it. The town would pay nothing upfront, only paying SOLON for the cost of energy. Current energy costs through TEP are 14 to 17 cents per kilowatt hour, while the cost of solar energy would be 5 to 13 cents, depending on the complexity of the solar installation, which varies with location.

“One example: You’re paying 13 cents for solar power and 14 cents for the utility power, you have a savings of one penny per kilowatt hour there,” Alm told the council. “Doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you multiply that by billions of kilowatt hours, it can add up pretty quickly.”

With this option, the town would save $615,000 over 20 years, but in another five years, the total 25-year savings would be $3.4 million, according to SOLON’s estimates. 

If the town chooses to lease for 20 years, it can then purchase at a discounted price, renegotiate a new lease deal or have SOLON remove the installations and restore the area to its previous state.

With option two, the town buys the solar installations and SOLON maintains them. This would cost the town $7.5 million upfront. The estimated savings, after the cost of the system, would be $2.4 million in 20 years and $5.7 million in 25 years.

Under option three, SOLON owns the project for any portion of the 20-year commitment then the town buys it. Alm showed the council a savings estimate where SOLON owns it for six years before the town buys it. In this scenario, the savings would likely be $2.8 million over 20 years and $5.6 million over 25 years.

Following the council’s vote to move forward, town staff is further assessing the project, including evaluating each proposed site on the feasibility of putting in a solar system and whether it could stay for 20-plus years without deterring future growth. If the town increased or reduced the number of sites, the estimates would change, Mehta said.

“We’ve got to look at the contract that we will be signing with SOLON Corporation, see what the terms are and then reevaluate our final costs to verify if the savings we have projected are truly still there,” he said. “If that’s the case, I think council has given us the green light to proceed.” 

Mehta said the resolution gives staff the authorization to proceed with the project only if there are savings. But if there are any deviations from what he and Alm already shared, the council will be notified and perhaps revisit the issue at another meeting.

Marana Mayor Ed Honea and Councilman Herb Kai cast the two dissenting votes. Kai gave a dissenting vote because it was a big decision, and said council should take more time to look at all their options.

Earlier in the meeting, Honea expressed concern that locking down the six locations for the next 25 years could hinder necessary growth. He brought up the example of parking lot shades getting torn down to put in the new police facility. 

“The fact that we’re locked in for 25 years and that land cannot be used for anything else for that entire period of time without a significant expense to move it,” he said. “Big savings 20 years from now—hopefully my grandchildren will appreciate it. I think the biggest benefit of solar towers for the Town of Marana is shade for the cars.”

Alm said the systems can be moved if necessary, but it would reduce the savings.

Only two of Marana’s councilmembers, Patti Comerford and Roxanne Ziegler, have solar at their homes.

“I know there’s a huge difference between residential and commercial, but I love it,” said Comerford, who has had solar since last October. “I love having $19 electric bills in the summer.”

The main reason the cost of solar has gone down is because the cost of the solar panels have gone down. The project’s largest expense would be the steel infrastructure to hold the panels.

Now may also be a good time to switch to solar energy because of TEP’s upcoming rate-plan transition, said Alm. He explained that when the town is under this new plan, they will be billed on a set rate based on their highest usage.

The savings estimates calculated by SOLON are based on the town entering into a contract before the December expiration of federal solar tax incentives. They’re also based on the assumption that TEP rates will rise 2.5 percent yearly, which Alm said is a conservative figure. If TEP rates rise more than that, the town would save even more with solar. 

SOLON also calculated that its operation and maintenance costs would rise 3 percent per year. The saving estimates also include the cost of purchasing and maintaining the system, and are above and beyond those expenses. 

Alm also explained that the panels would still produce at 80 percent after 20 years, and are made to withstand weather as severe as golf-ball sized hail.

“Not all municipalities do solar because it saves them money,” Alm told the council. “We build a lot of solar systems in municipalities that doesn’t save them money because either they want to show some green attributes or it’s the cheapest covered parking they’ve ever installed.”

Mehta said the next step will be more evident in a couple months.

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