Report: Solar potential of public buildings overlooked

While residential rooftops tend to grab the solar development spotlight, public buildings, especially in smaller cities, have often been overlooked, according to a new report.

Calling it “the missing piece in the examination” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance focused on five cities across the country, including Kansas City, Missouri, as examples of “what city leaders have done and can do to use solar on their own buildings.” The others were Lancaster, California; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Denver; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

With a population of 467,000, Kansas City has a total of 11 megawatts of PV solar installed, or about 25 watts per resident, which puts it in second place behind Indianapolis in the Midwest, according to a recent study, Shining Cities, by Environment America.

For its part, Kansas City’s government currently has close to 1.5 MW of solar in 59 separate installations on municipal buildings, the ILSR report noted. Meanwhile, the city is considering adding solar on a police facility, said the city’s project manager, Charles Harris.

By leasing the solar arrays, Kansas City avoided the upfront costs of installation, and was able to take advantage of a 30 percent federal tax credit. The report states that its 1.5 megawatts of solar have reduced its $21 million electric bill by $166,000 per year, or about three-quarters of a percent.

The Mid-America Regional Council, the Kansas City metro area’s regional planning agency, estimated that the city could host up to 70 MW on public property. But Harris disagrees. He said that the vast majority of properties identified by MARC as having potential for solar were unsuitable for a variety of reasons, including insufficient structural integrity.

Projections aside, the city’s staff overcame a number of obstacles in pursuing solar power, not the least of which was resistance within the ranks of governmental departments that are housed in a number of different municipal buildings.

“Some were not receptive to the idea. Others were skeptical because they said it would be obtrusive to the architectural features of some buildings, and one building needed roof repairs, so the timing was not right in that case,” Harris said. “People in higher authority did have to intervene in getting more cooperation, because you want cooperation instead of forcing it on people.”

Meeting the city’s goals for using minority- and women-owned businesses to do the installations was also a challenge, since few had the necessary experience. However, the matter was resolved because contractors were able to subcontract with minority and women-owned businesses as a way “to mentor them,” Harris added.

Having overcome those hurdles, the power purchase negotiations took a great deal of time and effort, he said, and while the mayor and city council wanted to get solar on city property, it was the General Services Department and the Office of Environmental Quality that led the way.

One “interesting twist” in the process, according to the ILSR report, is that the city leases from two separate entities – Kansas City Power and Light, an investor-owned utility as well as Brightergy, a solar developer. But because the structure of the rebate program offered by the power company was only available for solar projects 25 kilowatts or smaller, the city had to meet the size limitation regardless of whether a municipal building could support more on-site electricity.

But “as the cost of solar falls, and the federal incentives expire at the end of 2016, cities will have more options for financing solar that do not require tax equity partners,” said John Farrell, who co-authored the Public Rooftop Revolution report with Matt Grimley.

Meanwhile, Kansas City used its “solar experience” to make life easier for the private sector pursuing solar installation by shortening permit waiting times to eight hours or less, providing online permitting and lowering inspection times to eight hours or less, the report said.

According to ILSR, improving local policy, such as permitting, is one of the “spillover effects” of municipal solar. Another is “inspiring private sector copycats to also install solar.”

Connie Lewis is an Ohio-based freelance writer who has an extensive background covering business beats at various newspapers across the country. She may be reached at: conniemarylewis1964@gmail.com.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

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