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City Council studies potential solar power deal

Wednesday, October 1, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin Energy staff is set to present City Council members with a new potential 25-year community solar contract Thursday that would produce as much as 3.2 megawatts of “local” solar power for the utility. If approved, the deal would cost up to $13 million over that time span.

Staff’s suggested contract awardee is PowerFin Solar Projects, LLC. However, Council members could elect to go with another firm.

The “local” stamp on the project is thanks to the fact that the facility would be constructed at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and Springdale Road. Though the utility’s Vice President of Customer Energy Solutions, Debbie Kimberly, suggested that Austin Energy had yet to conduct extensive community outreach — amid promises to do more along those lines — she added that she believes the neighborhood will welcome the addition.

Kimberly cited informal discussions with residents. “This is something that the community — and frankly, even the surrounding community — would find attractive, in large part because the area would be fenced and there is a transient population in that area,” she added. “So the neighbors in that area have said that it would certainly be something that would enhance the surrounding community.”

Council Member Bill Spelman pulled the matter for discussion at Council’s regular Tuesday work session. He noted that Council had not been provided with an extensive amount of information about the proposal.

He then dove immediately into price comparisons between the proposed new project and other existing sources of generation. Among his requests was a call for any pricing matrices the utility had used to evaluate the deal.

Kimberly said that more complete information would have to come after Council’s Tuesday discussion. However, she put costs of rooftop solar — energy derived from at-home panels — at 3.7 cents per kilowatt hour. That figure, she said, includes an incentive paid to residential generators.

Kimberly said that, if approved, the PowerFin deal would come in at roughly half that price.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell took the opportunity to underscore price differences between the utility’s Webberville solar facility and the much-derided Nacogdoches biomass-burning plant.

“My recollection is that (Webberville) is more” than the biomass facility, he said.

Kimberly confirmed that, noting that Webberville electricity costs 16 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 14 cents for electricity produced by the biomass facility. That project has been roundly criticized for its costs.

However, Kimberly noted that the Webberville plant — a project that began producing energy just three years ago — was constructed at a time when costs were significantly higher for solar projects.

Solar power costs are a key component of a fresh debate over the city’s recent efforts to retool its generation portfolio.


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