Local Government

Johnson County quadruples solar energy production

Two arrays added to power grid

A large solar energy-collecting array on the site of the former armory near the Johnson County Administration Building,
A large solar energy-collecting array on the site of the former armory near the Johnson County Administration Building, 913 S. Dubuque St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The county unveiled its newest array which is installed on the roof of the county's Health and Human Services building. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — With the ceremonial flip of a giant novelty switch, Johnson County officials welcomed two new solar arrays to the local power grid.

County officials on Wednesday held an open house to showcase the county’s new solar panels — an 85.8 kilowatt ground-mount array near the Johnson County Administration Building and a 159.6 kW array on the roof of the nearby Health and Human Services Building.

The two arrays quadruple the county’s total solar production. The Secondary Roads campus already boasts an 86 kW array, which was installed last year.

“With all the energy we produce ... we’ve taken this building off the grid,” Josh Busard, director of Johnson County planning and development, said while standing in the county’s administration building.

Solar

Panels on the Administration Building are expected to produce about 113,000 annual kilowatt-hours, or about 24 percent of the building’s total energy use. The Health and Human Services array is anticipated to generate about 195,000 annual kilowatt-hours, or close to 12 percent of the building’s power use.

Combined, the two arrays’ energy production is similar to avoiding greenhouse gases produced by nearly 46 passenger vehicles in a year, or the annual energy use of almost 23 houses.

Real-time performance of the county’s existing solar arrays is soon to be viewable on the county’s website.

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To achieve its latest solar projects, Johnson County officials entered into a power purchase agreement with Dubuque’s Eagle Point Solar.

Local governments cannot receive renewable energy tax credits, but a private company can. A power purchase agreement allows the solar company — which can obtain federal and state tax credits — to construct the array, while the municipality buys the electricity at a reasonable price.

When the power purchase agreement ends in 20 years, the county can buy the solar arrays for $1 and take over ownership.

The county also has the option of buying the arrays after 10 or 15 years, which comes with a termination fee, but results in savings on the energy costs.

Johnson County first ventured into a power purchase agreement last year with North Liberty-based Moxie Solar’s installation of an 86 kW array near the Secondary Roads Facility at 4810 Melrose Ave.

Becky Soglin, Johnson County sustainability coordinator, said a power purchase agreement can make solar projects more accessible to local governments.

“In some cases the upfront costs are too high, so the power purchase agreement allows you to spread out those costs over time,” she said. “It definitely makes it more possible for us to do solar.”

Barry Shear, owner and chief executive officer of Eagle Point Solar, said he hopes to see a continued investment in such projects.

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“The potential for (solar) is unlimited,” he said. “This, in energy efficiency, with my biased view, is the industrial revolution of the 21st century.”

Soil

While much of Wednesday’s announcement focused on the sun above, county officials didn’t want to neglect the ground below with their latest project.

The site where the solar panels now sit was home to the Iowa National Guard’s Dubuque Street Armory for about 70 years until the structure was damaged by the 2008 flood and later demolished.

The open space was perfect for solar panels, but the ground had become compacted over the years and did little to manage stormwater runoff, said Kate Giannini, Johnson County soil and water conservation specialist.

“The site has been very compacted, it’s been hard to establish vegetation on it and we’ve just been wondering what to do with that space,” Giannini said.

So the county applied 2 inches of compost on top of the soil and then performed 6-inch deep tillage to break up the compaction so the site better absorbs rainwater and reduces runoff.

With no-mow, low-grow grass now planted, the area requires little maintenance as well, Giannini added.

Looking forward

Sustainability coordinator Soglin said Johnson County officials plan to continue focusing on sustainability in the years to come.

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There has been ongoing discussion of possibly adding solar power to the future Johnson County Ambulance Service Building at 808 S. Dubuque St., which is slated to open next spring.

Meanwhile, the county has entered into contracts with Farmer’s Electric Cooperative for two of its secondary roads department’s sheds in rural Johnson County.

Each $4,700 contract allows the county essentially to get credited back for the clean energy generated at the cooperative’s solar field south of Iowa City.

“It’s an indirect way to buy clean energy,” Soglin said.

In addition, the county is to continue pursuing other efforts such as sustainable building designs and efficiency updates to existing structures, Soglin said.

“There’s no one way to achieve energy efficiencies or add renewables — there’s obviously multiple ways,” she said. “We expect there will be more opportunities in the years to come.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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