Council OKs agreement for Georgetown’s $1 million solar power grant project

Georgetown City Council meetings are held in council chambers at 510 W. Ninth St., Georgetown.

Georgetown City Council meetings are held in council chambers at 510 W. Ninth St., Georgetown.

A Bloomberg Philanthropies-backed grant project involving solar panels and power-storage batteries will move forward following a May 14 vote by Georgetown City Council.

The council voted 4-2 to accept an agreement with Bloomberg Philanthropies that will give Georgetown up to $1 million over the next three years to develop the project.

The council initially considered its approval in March but delayed a decision until city staff clarified details of the agreement. Georgetown was one of nine grand prizewinners chosen in October 2018 by Bloomberg Philanthropies as part of the U.S. Mayors Challenge.

Updates to the city’s agreement with Bloomberg include clarifications on the process to cancel the grant and limits set on how unspent grant money can be used.

The city’s “virtual power plant” project will lease residential and commercial space to install solar panels and power-storage batteries. Officials said the project could help offset any future need for the city to buy power from outside sources.

A draft budget for the project estimates the three-year project could cost more than $1.3 million, including city-paid expenses not paid by the grant that would mainly cover costs associated with city staff working on the project.

The draft budget indicates funding sources for the program outside of the Bloomberg award could include net revenue from the project itself and previously awarded grant money the city has yet to spend as well as up to $220,000 paid by city utility customers.

Council members Tommy Gonzalez and Kevin Pitts opposed the agreement.

Pitts said he was concerned over how much out-of-pocket funding and staff time the city might have to chip in throughout the project’s lifespan. He also noted the project’s draft budget already exceeds the total amount of the Bloomberg grant award.

“I think we should decline this,” Pitts said. “I’m happy that we received it; it’s a great thing. But it’s just bad, bad timing.”

Gonzalez pressed Jack Daly, assistant to the Georgetown city manager who presented the agreement to the council, on how much financial risk the city would have to take on should the grant project prove unsuccessful after three years.

Prior to their votes for approval, council members Anna Eby, Steve Fought, Rachael Jonrowe and Valerie Nicholson voted down a separate motion by Pitts to decline the grant.

Nicholson said she understood Pitts’ concerns but favored the grant as long as the project’s final budget could be kept within the $1 million Bloomberg award and would not require additional money to come from electric utility ratepayers.

Daly said the draft budget incorporates both “hard” costs related to the project as well as “soft” costs to account for staff time already spent on the project’s development in order to give City Council a fuller look at the project’s overall cost. He told council members future funding needs could be kept within $1 million.

City Manager David Morgan said costs related to the project that would go beyond the scope of the award money would need additional approval from council members.

Jonrowe said she thought the grant project was worth pursuing, particularly the component involving power-storage batteries.

“I think we could be a pioneer in that regard, and that is not something to be taken lightly,” Jonrowe said.

The city’s next steps include hiring a project manager and setting a final budget with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Daly said.
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