City looks to diversify energy sources, help lower electric bills

A planned solar farm development could help Georgetown utility customers diversify their energy consumption and lessen their intake of fossil fuels.

On Sept. 25, Georgetown City Council approved rezoning 51.82 acres at the city’s former landfill site for public facility district use. According to city documents, up to 18 acres of the parcel, located at 250 W.L. Walden Drive near the San Gabriel River, could be used to build a solar farm that would produce 2 megawatts of solar energy.

“I’m excited to see this project moving forward,” City Councilwoman Rachael Jonrowe said. “It’s a step toward the city meeting its goal of having a larger percentage of our energy come from renewable [sources].”

Approving the rezoning request was the first step in developing the farm. City staff is now working to put together a proposal that will outline what they want the solar facility to include.

“We’ve done some preliminary analysis of the site and determined that it’s possible to put solar generation at the site,” Assistant City Manager Jim Briggs said. “We have ideas … on how we want to approach [the solar farm] and how we want parts of it to be organized, but we’ll leave it pretty much open in the proposal process for people to solicit their ideas of how they would approach the project and tie it in.”

Although no firm timeline for the project has been set, Briggs said the proposal will be available for firms to bid upon in early 2013. After bidding, Briggs said he hopes to award a contract for the project in late spring or early summer.

“We want to make sure we take our time and we select the right vendor,” Briggs said.

Why solar energy?

The City of Georgetown already allows residents to install solar panels and wind turbines of 10 kilowatts or less on their property and offers utility bill credit for the amount of electricity produced by renewable energy sources. Residents can also take advantage of a 30 percent federal rebate for installing solar panels, according to the city website.

However, panels for residences can cost homeowners between $8,000 and $35,000 in upfront and installation costs, according to the website. Not all houses are appropriately placed to absorb enough energy, and some panels do not store excess energy and are unusable when the sun is not shining, Briggs said.

“In most cases, what we find [is] the homes are not situated properly to take advantage of the solar output to the maximum potential,” he said. “So what happens is [residents] are trying to take an application that works well in a certain way and conform it to an existing static situation on their existing home, and they don’t get the production they want.”

Georgetown has an integrated energy resource plan that calls for the city to utilize different types of energy to keep from becoming overdependent on one source. The solar farm was proposed to meet that plan and to accommodate a growing number of residents who want to take advantage of solar power, Briggs said.

“People would be able to acquire the energy that would be produced out of this complex, specifically to a level that would maximize their intent to cover their full generation at their home at the most reasonable price possible for … solar -produced energy,” he said. “They wouldn’t have really any out-of-pocket, upfront capital.”

Solar power in Georgetown

According to the Energy Information Administration, one solar cell produces 1 or 2 watts of electricity, so many have to be harnessed to provide a stable flow of electricity, and a battery or backup source must be used to continue producing electricity at night. As a result, Georgetown’s solar farm will not be able to provide energy for 100 percent of each household’s usage.

David Scoggins, owner of Sundance Renewable Solutions, a solar installation business in Georgetown, also said he is not sure the farm would be the best approach to providing solar energy to the city, adding that rooftop panels have more advantages than large facilities.

“I feel that solar is more fit for distributed generation at a point of use rather than at a central location,” Scoggins said. “It would be up to the City of Georgetown to see if a large-scale array with all the infrastructure required would be a better use of their money.”

However, Briggs said if households use more than one type of energy for their needs, most homes’ electricity could be provided by solar.

“I think a level of mix is important,” he said. “But the majority of their power probably would come from solar.”

Solar for residents

When the solar farm is finished and ready to produce electricity, Georgetown residents will be able to sign a contract for a set period of time to have a percentage of their energy come from the facility. No panels or other equipment will need to be installed on the home, and Briggs said each home receiving solar energy would be wired into a city system.

“[A] homeowner wouldn’t actually have to do anything other than say, ‘I want the solar energy, [and] I agree to be on a contract for 10 years,’ sign a deal, and here’s the price. They know what their energy price is at that point for that period of time,” Briggs said.

Contracts for different amounts of solar energy throughout different time periods will be available so residents can utilize solar when it will produce the most energy. A portion of the cost of installing the field will be included in their monthly utility bills, but installation costs are not a sure indicator that solar prices will be higher than regular utilities, as prices associated with current energy sources can fluctuate.

“You can only guess by what markets tell you and what’s going to happen with any greenhouse legislation or any regulation on greenhouse gases,” Briggs said. “I would say solar is a good idea to be a part of people’s service.”


 
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