Council rejects solar power plan
Iola is a no-go for solar energy.
Iola Council members Monday night rejected, 6-2, overtures from Westar to build a solar energy plant in town.
Westar would have paid for construction of the plant, capable of producing about 2.7 megawatts of electricity per hour, with Iola given the option of buying the panels after seven years for $3.7 million. The plant would have provided a portion of Iola’s daily energy needs.
Council members debated the costs versus the benefits in the form of being able to count itself among the communities taking advantage of “green” energy sources.
In the end, however, Council members said the costs were too high for such an endeavor.
Councilman Mark Peters noted the solar panels would provide about 7 percent of the city’s generating capacity: “a drop in the bucket.”
He also pointed out the $3.7 million projection to buy the plant isn’t the true cost, because Iolans would pay a slight premium for the energy produced from the solar panels over the first seven years, as well as insurance and maintenance and upkeep over the life of the solar plant.
The actual cost, Peters said, was closer to $7 million.
If the plant provided more of the city’s generating needs, Peters said he’d likely support it.
“But if 7 percent is all it’s going to make, it’s not going to make any difference for us, not for $7 million.”
Councilman Ron Ballard, meanwhile, called it “poor financial planning” to invest all of the city’s electric fund savings into the solar project.
“Actually, it’s pretty prudent financial planning,” City Administrator Sid Fleming responded, further elaborating on the $7 million projection.
That projection includes what the city would have to pay for electricity, whatever its source, said Fleming.
When accounting for all costs, including purchase of the plant, the cost to Iolans equates to about $27 per megawatt hour, less than what Iola spent in 2018, which averaged $33 per megawatt hour.
“Spending $27 per megawatt over 30 years is a darned good price,” Fleming said.
Fleming noted the city’s electric fund generated about $1 million in profit in 2018. And with the city purchasing a pair of used diesel generators in May, Iola has about $1.7 million in the bank toward purchase of additional generation.
Fleming said the city should be able to set aside more than $200,000 annually to have the $3.7 million in the bank by the time the check comes due, a comment disputed by Ballard.
“Our main goal from strategic planning a year-and-a-half ago, was to save money, and we haven’t hit a single goal,” Ballard said.
EMG energy consultant Scott Shreve told the Council the city also could finance the solar plant’s purchase if the funds weren’t in reserve by 2027, “and you still have a better deal.”
As an aside, the city also could refrain from buying the plant, but would continue paying Westar a higher rate, about $48 per megawatt hour.
For perspective’s sake, that figure would be about $12 a year for an average customer, Fleming said.
“Shifts in the market are going to have a much greater influence (on electric bills) than this solar project would,” Fleming said.
THE GENERATION capacity remains key because Iola has had to pay Chanute and Sabetha about $100,000 per year through the Kansas Power Pool in order to be considered a “generating city.” That designates enables cities a wholesale energy rate.
Iola’s peak energy demand is about 28 megawatts per hour.
Without the solar panels, Iola remains just shy of that 28 megawatt threshold, even with the purchase in May of a pair of used diesel generators.
Still, that generation capacity figure was what prompted Councilwoman Nancy Ford to support the solar plan.
“Is this something we need to do to be competitive in today’s market to bring business to Iola?” she asked Shreve. (Ford was not at the meeting, but was able to participate over the phone, as did Councilman Aaron Franklin.)
“I think you do,” Shreve responded. “That’s why we’ve been working on this for two years. … this is what industrial customers are looking for.”
IOLANS in the audience — farmer Doug Strickler and mayoral candidate Larry Walden — spoke out against installing the solar panels.
Strickler railed against the cost of implementing green technology.
“Until there’s a technological break-through, solar is always going to be cost-prohibitive,” he said, adding that taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of solar projects because of those costs.
Strickler, who owns farmland near where the solar plant would have been on the northwest edge of town, also speculated dust would be an issue.
“And on a personal note, I’d prefer not to have a solar plant near my front yard,” he said. “I wonder if somebody comes in and wants to build here and provide jobs, but they don’t want to build next to a solar facility, what does that do to Iola?”
Among Walden’s complaints was the contractual agreement Iola would have been required to enter with Westar. The pact would have prohibited the city from renegotiating rates for the plant’s usage over the next 30 years.
IN THE END, the cost concerns were too much for other Council members as well.
Franklin told the Register afterward that “there are so many other things that need financial attention.
“I tried to make it clear in the May meeting that I’m supportive of solar,” Franklin said. “We just need the money in the bank before we commit. It’s not too much to ask, in my honest opinion.”
“I have a serious problem with spending this amount of money when we haven’t saved enough,” Councilwoman Kim Peterson said, “and so did everyone I talked to.”
“I’m going to have to echo that,” Councilman Daniel Mathew added. “I have a lot of the same concerns.”
Councilman Gene Myrick proposed the Council wait until September, after the city passes its 2020 budget, before making a decision. That proposal failed when nobody else supported it.
That led Ballard to propose rejecting the solar plant outright. He was joined by Franklin, Mathew, Myrick, Peters and Peterson.
Ford and Chase Martin voted in opposition.
TWO candidates for positions on the council, Walden and Josiah D’Albini, spoke about other issues at the outset of Monday’s meeting.
Walden, who will face Mayor Jon Wells and Ballard for the mayor’s seat in the November general election, said he had been approached by others in the community in favor of seeing the speed limit raised along North Kentucky and North Cottonwood streets and Miller Road. It is currently 30 mph. Walden said he would like to see the speed limit raised to 40 mph on Cottonwood, to 45 mph on Miller, and on Kentucky have the speed be 40 mph from Oregon Road to Carpenter Street.
D’Albini, one of four candidates seeking to represent Iola’s third ward, asked the Council to consider meeting on a regular basis, perhaps quarterly, with other entities, such as the Allen County Commission and USD 257 Board of Education in an effort to spark greater communication between the governing bodies.
COUNCIL members also:
— Agreed to take another look at mosquito spraying in Iola. The practice was abandoned this year because of disagreements on whether the practice is effective enough for the cost involved, more than $20,000.
— Approved a request from the Allen County Fair Board Association to host a beer garden during a cornhole tournament and bull riding event June 22 at Riverside Park.
— Waived rental fees for the Lehigh Roots Festival and Allen County Animal Rescue Facility organizers to host separate events at the John Silas Bass North Community Building in the fall. The Lehigh Roots concert is planned for Oct. 11; the ACARF event, a craft show, is planned for Nov. 2.