Escanaba eyes solar energy garden

ESCANABA — A recommendation to hire a contractor to build a one-megawatt solar energy garden in Escanaba will be considered by Escanaba City Council next week. The Electrical Advisory Committee (EAC) selected a bidder for the project at its meeting Wednesday.

EAC members were told the proposed solar project will help lower energy costs city-wide by using free fuel from the sun to generate about 1 percent of the city’s power — equivalent to the amount of electricity used by more than 200 homes.

Calculations show the solar energy system will operate for at least 25 years, providing less expensive electricity compared to the city’s contracted power supply agreement, explained EAC member Glendon Brown in a detailed report Wednesday.

The $1.5 million project will be funded by electric fund monies and renewable energy credits. If council approves the recommended contractor next Thursday, a program will be established for residential and business electric customers to buy the output of one solar panel to help offset the city’s costs, explained Brown.

“This really is an opportunity for a resident or a business,” he added, noting the anticipated cost of energy is “very attractive.”

The city received a total of 16 bids from contractors interested in building the solar energy system including engineering, procurement, construction and start-up. Prior to submitting bids, some contractors visited the site where the solar energy system will be built on eight acres owned by the Delta County Airport.

“Most of the proposals were from Midwest solar developers, but proposals from as far away as California, Florida, Vermont and Massachusetts were received,” Brown told EAC members.

Brown and Electric Superintendent Mike Furmanski extensively reviewed the bids, ranking each on various factors such as installation cost, types of solar panels, inverter capacity and cost per watt, explained Brown.

Three bids came out on top with close rankings and were labeled Bidder 1, Bidder 2 and Bidder 3. Brown and Furmanski recommended the EAC choose Bidder 2’s contract proposal to forward to council for approval next week.

“Overall, we think Bidder 2 has the best contract,” said Brown, noting the company’s 10-year inverter warranty and 25-year panel warranty were significant in addition to the overall cost of the proposal.

Brown and Furmanski also considered the company’s quality reputation, local experience and financial stability. The preferred bidder also offers a two-year operating and maintenance agreement including training.

In addition to confirming the contractor can supply the specific panels it proposed and settling on a payment schedule, the city also wants to encourage the bidder to hire a local electrical subcontractor, Brown added.

Costs to date for the proposed project include extensive site studies conducted last fall by Westwood Multi-Disciplined Surveying & Engineering of Eden Prairie, Minn. Reports generated from the tests were included in the bid documents and were instrumental to the bidders, said Brown.

Westwood did a solar shade analysis to ensure sufficient sunlight for the system. A glare analysis to eliminate any concerns of glare on airplanes was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Geotechnical assessments tested wind and snow loads, groundwater levels, and soil conditions for the panel foundations.

In addition to hiring a contractor, other future expenses include land lease payments to the county, a land survey and a market value assessment for the 25-year lease agreement, a transformer, a security fence, a culvert for another access road, a mowing contract, and a 10 percent contingency on the project, said Brown.

He also informed EAC members, in comparison to other solar energy systems operating in the region, an economic analysis showed the proposed Escanaba system will be less expensive to operate, resulting in more energy savings.

“Basically, our costs look very attractive when compared to other projects and national statistics,” he said.

Once the local solar project is approved, work will take place this summer and fall. More than 3,000 solar panels will be installed in six rows, north of Airport Road, west of the airport terminal and parallel to the airport runway.

“Once construction is completed, the Escanaba solar project will be connected to the city electric distribution system, providing a portion of the electric supply to all the Escanaba residents and businesses,” stated Brown.

Though the proposed solar energy project is expected to produce only one percent of Escanaba’s annual power production, Brown said the system could also reduce the city’s capacity costs and transmission costs, lowering the cost of electricity for all of the city’s electric customers.

Another benefit is that the city’s ability to produce energy from solar power will be attractive to businesses which can market their products are produced using renewable energy, added Brown.

“I think it will be a significant economic tool,” he predicted.

EAC members unanimously agreed to forward Bidder 2’s contract to council for approval with an added option to encourage an expansion of the proposed project.

Escanaba has been purchasing wholesale power from NextEra Energy Inc. since January 2012 and has a contract with the energy supplier through fiscal year 2023-24.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143,