Those making their way far enough down the stretch of east 16th Street in Schuyler have likely noticed the work taking place on an expansive 33-acre plot of land.
The hours of labor transpiring at the location will soon result in the completion of a green energy project similar to ones in Nebraska cities like Fremont, Lincoln, Central City, Aurora and Lexington. A solar energy farm expected to go live in January 2019 is being erected in the town comprised of less than 10,000 people.
The solar farm itself is approximately 300-feet by 400-feet in size and will be enclosed by fencing in the future, said James McGowen, superintendent of the Schuyler Department of Utilities. McGowen said that the final wave of panel installation is in the process of being completed and that the project will be done toward the end of December.
"I think it’s forward thinking,” said outgoing Schuyler Mayor David Reinecke, who decided to step down this year after 20 years of service and will be succeeded by resident Jon Knutson after the latter ran uncontested for the position in the Nov. 6 election, as previously reported. “I think that Schuyler has been pretty progressive in recent years, so it doesn’t surprise me that the Department of Utilities spearheaded this.”
McGowen said during a recent interview with the Sun that the city received two Request For Proposals (RFP) and that the low bid came from Piedmont, South Dakota-based GenPro Energy Solutions. The total project is costing the Department of Utilities – which Reinecke said operates a budget independent from the city’s – about $750,000.
Following completion, the Department of Utilities will tap into the energy source for about a year before determining the best way of offering the service to its approximately 2,500-person clientele.
“We learned about ways that other communities were selling it (energy) to their customers,” McGowen said. “I didn’t feel comfortable just picking those numbers out, so we are actually going to build a facility and then operate it for a year, use it basically in-house for our electric, water and sewer."
Other cities benefiting from solar have given customers the option of buying individual panels or simply buying into the power grid. When complete, McGowen said the farm will output 500 kilowatts of energy.
The Schuyler project began about 24-30 months ago after McGowen attended a Department of Utilities conference in Lincoln, where conversations regarding green energy were held. From there, he and other department board members constructed their plan of attack before receiving approval to move ahead with the project from the Schuyler Board of Public Works and City Council.
The rate of return on the department’s investment will take several years, however, the superintendent said that the upfront expense is worth it in the long run and will serve as a viable supplement to nonrenewable power sources.
“I think the return on our investment is expected to be anywhere from 10-15 years,” McGowen said. “I am expecting it to be quicker than that, but that’s a ballpark figure. I am hoping that it will actually be between five and 10 years, but we will see.”
Although this is a large step toward a greener community, McGowen said that previous measures have been taken to be more eco-friendly and cost-effective.
“We changed all of the lighting in Schuyler to LEDs over a period of probably 14 months, and it decreased our operation and maintenance of our lighting by 80 percent,” he said. “So they are paying for themselves, and in a little more than two years we paid back what we spent on the lights.”
No official survey has taken place in town to gauge what the interest of residents is in regard to buying into the farm, but McGowen said that he’s heard the discussion and received inquiries about what a solar farm would mean for the city and its utility patrons.
“I think that it’s important for us to try to work with some green energy," he said. "I think what we have is very sufficient for the state of Nebraska, and I think that having green energy for some type of supplemental is important.
“And I feel that it is supplemental. In my personal opinion, we aren’t going to have solar and wind energy, and that’s it. We are still going to have some type of diesel or fossil fuel that provides electricity because it’s more dependable.”
Reinecke added he views the project as a positive for the community, and eventually, its residents.
“I would imagine that there will be some interest,” Reinecke said of the community’s reaction to using the farm. “From my understanding, any community that has done this, that has been the case.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.