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Commission considers installation of solar panels on five county buildings

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By Peter Sawyer

An opportunity for Campbell County to go green and save utility costs sparked questions at a lengthy special called commission meeting Feb. 11.

Last month, the commission approved a bond issuance that provided funding to the school system for a solar panel project at nine schools. The board of education assumed responsibility for the panels; the bond issuance could also provide $555,500 in funding to install solar panels at five county buildings, according to a budget resolution from the February Budget and Finance Committee meeting. These buildings include the sheriff’s department, environmental services building, health department, courthouse and finance department, according to an email from Campbell County Finance Director Jeff Marlow. Campbell County, as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Green Power Provider program, could sell power generated by the panels back to TVA at the current TVA rate of 11.36 cents per KW with a 9 cents per KW rebate, Marlow said at a January meeting.

TVA has agreements with municipalities, TVA spokesperson Mike Bradley said in a phone interview.

“Yes, we purchase clean solar power from installations at several schools and municipalities across our service area,” Bradley said. “We purchase the power they generate at a premium rate, up to 50 KW (system).”

The Green Power Providers program, which applies to areas that generate up to 50 KWs a day, was previously referred to as the Generation Partners program, Bradley said.

The county will decide whether or not to pursue the opportunity at the meeting on Tuesday.

Before the Feb. 11 meeting, Jerry Kidd, a Campbell County resident, circulated literature that listed statements and questions challenging the agreement the commission is considering. Marlow addressed Kidd’s accusation that the $160,000 per year the school system will receive from TVA if the solar panels are used “is a lie.”

Marlow clarified how the arrangement with TVA would work.

“Are you gonna get a check from TVA? No, you’re not,” Marlow said.

Instead of receiving revenue, the county would receive credit towards expenses, Marlow said.

“It’s not a revenue stream,” Marlow said. “It isn’t money received, it is credit towards expenses out.”

At Monday’s meeting, commissioners listened to two presentations. Robbie Thomas, from Efficient Energy of Tennessee, offered to install solar panel systems at the five buildings for Campbell County.

“We basically go in and put basic mount systems on top of the buildings,” Thomas said. “We put the systems on and tie them into the grid. TVA buys the power for whatever the GSA rate is. You get whatever the GSA rate is plus 9 cents.”

Though Campbell County would be contracted with TVA for 20 years, the designed life of the solar panels is 25 to 40 years, Thomas said.

However, Earth-Right President John Kemp proposed renting space from Campbell County so he could maintain his own solar panel system.

“We have a different proposal,” Kemp said. “We offer just to rent the area.”

Earth-Right would pay $1,000 per site to rent space. It would cover the cost for installing the solar panel system. It would also monitor the system and maintain it.

Commissioner Marie Ayers asked if the $1,000 was negotiable.

“It’s a little bit negotiable,” Kemp said. “Not much.”

After 20 years, Earth-Rite would give the system to the county.

“All we ask is for you to lease your space for a period of 20 years, then we’ll give you a system,” Kemp said.

Members of the commission had questions for Kemp, Thomas and Marlow about the solar panel program.

Commissioner Sue Nance asked Thomas why he didn’t rent space and install the system himself.

Thomas didn’t want to invest his money that way, he said.

Commissioner Tom Hatmaker questioned why the county would invest taxpayers’ money that way.

Local businessman Mike Malicoate told the commission he’s invested his money in several solar panels systems.

“It has beat the projections,” Malicoate said. “I’m satisfied with the return on them.”

Ayers also asked how much it would cost to move the system to repair the roof.

Five people could easily move the system for about $1,000, Thomas said.

Kemp, however, claimed moving the systems in order to repair roofs isn’t as easy as Thomas had said.

Commissioner Bob Walden expressed concerns about the cost of the inverter, a piece of the system that attaches the solar panel to the roof. Walden verified there are about five inverters at each site. He asked how much it would cost the county to replace a broken inverter after the warranty expired.

Because these costs are decreasing, by the time the warranty expires, replacing an inverter would cost $1,500, Thomas said. Thomas didn’t recommend getting an extended warranty for the inverters because he felt that would be more expensive than replacing them at that point.

“I don’t know where he gets his for $1,500,” Kemp had said during his presentation.

Hatmaker asked why Thomas and Kemp claimed there were different prices for inverters.

Thomas clarified he hadn’t told the commission inverters currently cost $1,500, but estimated they would cost that much around the time the county’s warranty would expire.

Walden asked Kemp how his plan would work differently than the other, in terms of selling power to TVA.

“It’s up to the utility,” Kemp said.

Commissioner Alvin Evans asked about the difference between the deals Kemp and Thomas offered.

“Can we get more money paying for it (the solar panels)?” he asked, referring to Thomas’ offer.

“Twice as much,” Marlow said.

“We have to pay a lot more money to get that twice as much,” Evans said.

The money received covers that cost, Marlow said.

In order to pay EETN to install the solar panels, the commission would have to pass a resolution allocating $555,500 from bonds. For the first 15 years, most of the money generated would go to paying off the $555,500, as well as maintenance costs, Marlow said in an email. While the county is still paying off the bonds, the solar panels would generate $106,875 in credit towards bills, Marlow said. However, after paying off the bonds, the county would generate about $50,462 each year until the contract with TVA is over, Marlow said.

If the county leases space on the five buildings to Earth-Right for $1,000 a year for 15 years, it will make around $75,000. After the 20-year agreement with Earth-Right, the county would have made $100,000.

“You’ll need to make a decision timely,” Marlow said.

Commissioner David Adkins wasn’t ready to make a decision at the Feb. 11 meeting, he said.

“Do y’all think y’all can make a decision next week?” County Mayor William Baird asked the commission.

Marlow asked if the commissioners needed more time or more information.

“I just need time to roll it around in my head,” Adkins said.

The commission will vote whether or not to approve a contract with EETN at the Tuesday meeting.