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  Sunday January 25th, 2015    

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Firm pitches solar panel deal to County Board (03/03/2013)
By Sarah Squires

The sun may soon be shining on solar panel arrays affixed to the top of county buildings, producing energy and, if all goes according to plan, saving the county money.

The County Board agreed last week to apply to Xcel Energy for a renewable energy program that, combined with several other incentives, would help cover the cost of the system. The estimated $189,000 cost of the solar panels would be paid by JJR Power, and the company would receive the renewable energy incentive programs to help fund the project. For the first six years, the 40kW system would generate power used in the two county buildings—the Government Center on Main Street and the Goodview Highway Shop. The county would purchase the power generated from JJR Power at 80 percent of the retail cost. After the first six years, the county would own the panels.

The board was approached just days before the application had to be made to Xcel, and Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said she needed more time to review the proposed contracts and agreements to ensure the deal would not leave Winona County with an unexpected bill if something went wrong. She said the draft agreements were complex, and she still had a lot of unanswered questions. "I'm a little concerned about the timing," she said. As long as the letter of intent to apply for the Xcel Energy program doesn't bind the county to the agreement, however, Sonneman seemed to agree it would be fine to proceed.

In order to install the solar panels on the Government Center on Main Street, the roof must be replaced. A new roof is part of the county Capital Improvement Program (CIP), slated for 2016 at a cost of $85,000. That project would have to be completed this year in order to proceed with the solar panel installation.

Winona County Sustainability Coordinator Anne Morse said she and other county staff had been trying to "shoot holes" in the agreement because it almost seemed too good to be true. "Before, this didn't work for us," she said of solar panel projects. "But now there is a way that we can make it work."

Winona County Board member Marcia Ward said she was a bit leery of the solar promises. The county attempted to partner with the private sector on a wind turbine project, she reminded the board, but in the end the county both lost money and was not a partner in the turbine project. "A lot of promises were made [about the turbines] too," she said.

Morse explained that the new solar panels that would be used for the project were safer and built to last, boasting many improvements over older solar systems on the market.

If Winona County's application to Xcel Energy for the renewable energy program is accepted, county leaders will further study the agreement with JJR Power and consider whether to pursue the solar project. 


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