Cities across county realizing benefits of solar-powered public infrastructure

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Cities across Clayton County are realizing the benefits of solar powering public infrastructure. Marquette has completed four projects since 2019, including this array along U.S. Highway 18 that powers the sewer plant. (Times-Register file photo)

Monona has solar powered nine city sites, including well three, or the water tower site. (Times-Register file photo)

This solar project will power the city of Elkader's water wells and treatment site. That and a project at the city shop are expected to save the city $246,000 over 25 years, according to city administrator Jennifer Cowsert. (Times-Register file photo)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Cities across Clayton County are realizing the benefits of solar powering public infrastructure. 


Since 2019, Marquette, Monona and Elkader have all completed projects, and Clayton County Energy District (CCED) Program Manager Joleen Jansen said other communities are considering solar too.


Marquette was the first to take the step, inspired by a solar for non-taxable entities workshop hosted by CCED and other energy districts in 2018. City clerk Bonnie Basemann recalled talking to public works director Jason Sullivan not long after. He suggested well number four in Marquette’s Timber Ridge housing subdivision as the perfect place to start.


The city officially flipped the switch in winter 2019.


“It’s kind of funny because the council was a little bit hesitant. I had to convince them to do well four,” Basemann said. “Then, once that was up and running and I was showing them the savings, at that next budget cycle, they looked at me and said, ‘Where else can we do this?’”


The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre and city shop/police station were solar powered the following year, as was the sewer plant.


Along with switching the street lights to LEDs and installing an electric vehicle charging station, Marquette has saved roughly $55,000 in energy costs over the past three years, according to Basemann.


“I took the average utilities prior to solar for two or three years and deducted it from what we’re doing now and came up with that savings,” she explained. “The average payback for the project cost is about 10 years. The solar panels have a life expectancy of about 25 years. The real savings will be after that.”


Solar power has also made an environmental impact. Between the city shop and Wetlands Centre, Marquette has saved 127,000 pounds in CO2 emissions and facilitated the equivalent of planting 880 trees.


“And those are just the two smaller projects,” Basemann said.


The community currently has no other solar projects in the works, although mayor Steve Weipert said a proposed senior housing development would be a good fit. If anything, Basemann believes Marquette will investigate geothermal or other environmentally friendly heating options.


“We have a pretty decent bill for propane between all the facilities, but if there are ways to save that way, we might want to look into it,” she said.


Monona began solar powering its public infrastructure in summer 2021. Nine sites—the city garage, city hall, community center, fire station, swimming pool, Gateway Park, one lift station and wells two and three—were completed between that time and February 2022.


“We originally had 10 sites we were going to do. The biggest one was supposed to be the wastewater treatment plant, but it was too big a use of electricity and not enough land to put solar on. So we did the nine,” said city administrator Barb Collins.


Unlike Marquette, which paid for its solar projects, Monona entered into a power purchase agreement with a private backer who covered the estimated $474,270 cost. The city pays that investor back each month, but is still saving money, noted Collins.


Monona went from spending $10,500 to $10,600 per month in 2019 and 2020 to an average of $7,893 per month in 2022, after the projects were online.


“Right now, it’s saving an average of $3,000 per month,” Collins said. “After our payment plan is done, we should have another 15 years to enjoy the full benefits, which should save us over a million dollars.”


The city of Elkader completed its first solar project in 2022, with the city shop. The water well site will also be switched over. Similar to Monona, the projects are done through a power purchase agreement.


“We had the solar company look at most of our sites, but some did not work monetarily and some didn’t work because they were in a flood plain,” said city administrator Jennifer Cowsert. 


Since the city is so new to solar, she added that real cost savings are still being determined.


“But the two projects combined are to save $246,000 over 25 years,” she said. “I will be keeping track to compare it to the projected savings.”


Jansen from CCED is happy to see how solar power has taken off in municipalities. Cities have inspired one another.


“Marquette was a leader in Clayton County to implement it, and we’ve used their story and held it up. That message is getting out,” said Jansen. “Hopefully CCED has been a good connector with our tours and our website, and we hope our workshops make a difference. But towns inspire other towns. Once you light a match, it spreads like wildfire.”


Similar to the growth in private solar projects across the county, “People find that, if it makes sense for their neighbor, they need to hear more about it. It catches on,” Jansen added. “It’s good for the bottom line and reducing greenhouse emissions.”


Cowsert said Elkader was influenced by solar success in Marquette and Monona. She hopes the city’s efforts will inspire others in the community.


“We all learn from each other, so yes, I think others may see that we tried it and they will look into it too,” she stated. “I had one resident ask me why we didn’t do this sooner and ask why we aren’t converting all of our sites. So there is definitely support out there for it.”


Collins referenced growth in Monona too. In 2022, the city issued 13 permits for private solar projects.


“A lot of homeowners are going into it,” she said.


Even if private property owners can’t invest in their own arrays, solar powering public infrastructure helps them.


For example, Marquette city officials said energy cost savings won’t impact the city’s bottom line as much as it will help rate payers.


“What it does is save the taxpayers on their water sewer rates. If we weren’t saving money, we’d have to raise rates to cover it. So it’s money in their pockets, not the city’s,” said Weipert. “It’s worked out well.”


Collins agreed.


“The council’s main goal is not to raise rates unless we absolutely need it,” she said. “It will also help get some projects done. A savings here helps put the money somewhere else. That’s the big thing about it. And since we didn’t have to pay for it up front, that also helps.”


Jansen offered solar-powered public infrastructure as an equivalent to community-owned solar.


Solar powering a well house, for instance, results in fewer kilowatts purchased from an electric provider, and thus a smaller tax burden.


“It may not work for every household to have their own solar, but it reduces costs in the community. That’s a win for local communities,” she said.

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