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Village Council considers solar project

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At their Jan. 5 meeting, Village Council members heard robust support for a proposed community solar project. However, Village staff members expressed concerns over the project’s potential legal and financial ramifications and urged caution.

The topic was discussion only, and will be revisited in several months, after more information is gathered.

The project is “a small piece of Yellow Springs becoming a carbon neutral village,” according to Dan Rudolf of the Village Energy Board, who made the presentation to Council. It’s unlikely that state and federal officials will do anything substantial to combat climate change, Rudolf said. “If it can’t be done top down, it needs to happen bottom up.”

Citing the 2010 Village Comprehensive Plan, which states, “Being environmentally responsible — working to improve and preserve the natural ecosystem’s health — is deemed higher priority than individual or collective economic gain,” Rudolf stated, “We’ve said these things, now let’s do them.”

Specifically, the group is proposing to construct, at a not-yet-identified location, a community solar installation for which villagers can purchase solar panels.

The project would allow many who support solar but are not able to install panels at their own properties — due to cost or lack of sun exposure — to participate in the project, Rudolf said. The community installation could take advantage of scale to offer lower prices and location to provide the optimal tilt and orientation for best use of the panels, and the site would create the opportunity for free battery backup storage for Village use, according to the proposal. The solar installation would also allow the Village to quickly and efficiently fill the 1 percent of the Village electric portfolio earmarked for residential renewable energy production, which is currently not being used up to potential.

However, the project is not in line with Village ordinances at this time, and its implementation is complicated, according to Village Manager Patti Bates.

“In principle, I think it’s a great idea,” Bates said. “But I have concerns that if Council wants to pursue this, it has to be done right.”

Specifically, it’s not yet clear how many residences currently have solar panels, so that Village staff members don’t know for sure how much of the 1 percent of electrical use currently earmarked for residential renewables is actually being used. The concern, according to electric consultant John Courtney, is that if more villagers are using renewables than are currently known, the Village could end up purchasing unneeded electricity from other sources, and thus lose money.

“My charge is to make sure the project doesn’t adversely affect the Village electric system,” Courtney said.

Adding to the complexity is that the current Village ordinance that establishes the net metering system necessary for residential solar use requires that the solar installation be on the villager’s property rather than another site. Billing customers of the community solar project for electrical use would require a more complicated billing system than that currently available, according to Bates.

Supporters of the solar project acknow-ledged the challenges of a community solar project at Monday night’s meeting. In the proposal, they encouraged Village staff to inventory local residential solar arrays to have an accurate number, and also to meet with the Energy Board and Courtney to develop a new billing system. And the Village could also follow the example of other progressive towns that already have community solar, Rudolf said.

“There are many models out there,” he said.

The Village will soon have a portfolio that is largely renewables, Courtney said. In 2016, the Village will be using 83 percent renewable energy, with 60 percent hydropower, 20 percent wind and 3 percent landfill gas. At that time the Village also has a contract for 7 percent of its energy from natural gas, which is not renewable. Rounding out the portfolio is 5 percent earmarked for local renewables, with 4 percent of that amount for institutional  sites, and currently used by Antioch College. That leaves the 1 percent for residential renewable production, along with contracts on the open market.

Village electric staff is already attempting to inventory residential solar arrays, according to Superintendent Johnnie Burns, but the work  interferes with other demands on the crew, who are discovering that some who installed solar didn’t receive the necessary Village permit, so that their presence is unknown. It would be helpful if those with solar panels on their property would alert Village staff to their solar array, Bates said.

About 10 villagers spoke in favor of the community solar project, with several citing global climate change as their main motivation.

“Climate change is upon us,” Pat Brown said. “We need to do this.”

For the village to reduce its carbon footprint, local renewable energy is better than renewables produced elsewhere, according to Duard Headley.

“The only real way to do this is to look at all the local renewable options,” he said. “I would love to participate in a community solar array.”

Richard Lapedes urged project supporters to consider how to move ahead with the project in a way that doesn’t make the village less affordable. And Bob Brecha emphasized the complexity of the issue, especially since cutting back on some sources of energy, such as gasoline, often means using more electricity.

“A lot of things haven’t been looked at in a careful way,” he said. “If we want to be 100 percent carbon free, there’s a big set of complicated things to look at.”

At the end of the discussion, Village staff agreed to attempt to finish the inventory of residential solar arrays within 90 days, during which the solar project supporters would address other questions.

Other items of Council’s Jan. 5 agenda will be in next week’s paper.

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