Shippensburg Borough Council OKs solar deal

By Dale Heberlig, Sentinel Reporter Oct 9, 2010

Shippensburg Borough Council approved a contract Tuesday night for a solar power plant at its waste water treatment plant – but only after 40 minutes of closed-door executive session discussion and prepared statements of opposition from two council members.

The 3-2 vote to approve the contract clears the way for Kenyon Energy of Florida to proceed with a project to construct a solar panel array pegged to generate 1.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually for use at the treatment plant.

The estimated $5 million cost of the solar project is funded, in part, by $3 million in state and federal grants.

The plan predicts electricity cost savings to the borough of $1.4 million over a 20-year period.

The treatment plant uses about 1.6 million kilowatt hours of power annually. The solar facility will provide 70-75 percent of that need. Energy from the solar panels will be sold to the borough at a reduced rate, with no transmission fees included.

Penelec currently receives about 8 cents per kilowatt hour and charges a transmission fee. The Penelec cost is predicted to increase markedly in 2011.

Michael Dykstra of Kenyon Energy said Tuesday that construction could begin at the start of 2011 if required approvals and government permits are in place by that time.

Mixed feelings

Councilmen Jon Baker and Steve Brenize both opposed the agreement on principle, objecting to the use of government grant money to promote projects in the public sector that benefit private industry.

Baker also argued the proposed solar project is financially unsound.

Supporters, including Council President Andrea Lage and Councilman W. Edward Goodhart, stressed the environmental benefits of reduced reliance on conventionally produced electricity and the overall saving to the borough.

Councilman Geno Torri expressed reservations about the solar project’s impact on reducing the carbon footprint, saying he had not seen any comparisons that illustrate the carbon reduction. In the end, Torri voted to approve the deal.

Dykstra said comparison numbers have been provided to Borough Manager Earl Parshall and solicitor Sam Wiser. Parshall and Lage suggested the comparison was provided to council members during earlier consideration of the project.

Baker cautioned council against treating grant money frivolously.

“This project carries a price tag of over $5 million,” he wrote in a statement. “While it’s true that the cost may be covered by federal and state grant monies, it is foolish to treat this as money from the sky.”

Baker said he crunched the numbers and found that “even if energy prices increased by 100 percent tomorrow, the return-on-investment would be minus 50 percent over the life of the project.”

‘Corporatism’

Brenize focused on his opposition to grant money, saying that any funds provided by the government stem from taxes paid by Shippensburg residents and others. He said debt created by grants must be repaid by future taxes or added to the national deficit.

He also described the proposal to use taxpayer funds to help a private company build a project on public property as “corporatism,” arguing that if the solar project is such a good idea, the borough should have secured grant funds and done the project on its own.

Lage referred to council’s approval as a “responsible” action that would save the borough money and benefit the environment in the future. She said the per-kilowatt cost is not the only savings, pointing specifically to the enormous use of water in generating electricity by conventional methods.

At the suggestion of Torri, the motion to approve the contract was amended to include a dedication of any future electricity costs savings to preventing or minimizing sewer rate increases.

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