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Steve Stodden, associate general manager of electric supply for City Utilities, stands at the entry of a 40-acre field near Strafford that will become home to a 5-megawatt solar farm.
Steve Stodden, associate general manager of electric supply for City Utilities, stands at the entry of a 40-acre field near Strafford that will become home to a 5-megawatt solar farm.

Solar Flare

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The sun is rising on City Utilities of Springfield’s solar plans.

In an effort to diversify its power-generation sources and utilize renewable-energy technology, CU is partnering with a North Carolina solar technology manufacturing and management company to build a 5-megawatt solar farm on 40 acres east of the city.

According to the agreement, Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Strata Solar plans to install 21,888 solar panels on vacant CU land, just east of the McCartney generating station at 2915 N. Farm Road 209.

Steve Stodden, CU associate general manager of electric supply, said utilities administrators and staff have been searching for years for the right opportunity to start a full-fledged solar program.

“We’ve looked at solar for a long time, it has just been hard to get to the right price point. It has just been too expensive to bring in as a resource,” Stodden said.

CU was scheduled to formally enter into a 25-year purchase-power agreement with Strata by Sept. 27 whereby the public utility agrees to buy the energy produced at the farm and lease the land to Strata for free. In return, Strata owns and maintains the panels and is responsible for the site. After seven years, CU has an option to buy Strata’s equipment and run the farm itself. Stodden said the deal appealed to CU because it doesn’t have upfront costs, short of the $50,000 estimate to connect the site for distribution.

“We really did that as a way to mitigate our risk,” Stodden said. “We wanted to learn the technology, so we formulated the bid as a purchase-power agreement. All the risk is transferred to them. If there is a storm that comes through and damages (the equipment) – anything like that, it’s Strata’s risk.”

O’Fallon-based Solexus Development LLC is serving as project developer for Strata. Solexus President David Bunge said he put together the bid following a request for proposals in May, partnering with Strata from the start. Once panels are installed – which is expected by May – Bunge said Strata would work directly with CU to provide an estimated 9.6 million kilowatt-hours of solar energy per year. The expected yield is enough to power 875 homes in the Springfield area.

“We are the main point of contact for City Utilities and led the charge of negotiating a contract. We will be taking the lead in putting the permitting together for the project and going through a lot of those due diligence efforts,” said Bunge, who has worked in solar energy sales since 2007.

Bunge declined to disclose installation costs, and Strata officials declined via email to comment on the company’s investment or potential earnings in Springfield. While he didn’t formally establish Solexus Development until April, according to Missouri corporation filings, Bunge said he’s worked with Strata on multiple projects when he was with a previous employer in North Carolina.

“My company is a project development company, so we focus on what we call greenfield development, which are typically between 2 megawatts and 10 megawatts with utilities and municipalities,” he said.

With Strata, Bunge said he is pursuing several opportunities with cities and utilities providers in Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina. “In terms of our relationship, (Strata’s) business model is to build, own and operate these systems, and it works with companies such as Solexus to find and develop opportunities,” he said.

Stodden said Strata was selected based on its depth of experience in constructing and managing systems in the 5 MW to 7 MW range. According to StrataSolar.com, the company has 33 utilities projects in that scope. Strata’s resume includes a 1 MW rooftop project for Swedish retailer Ikea in Atlanta and 6 MW utility projects in North Carolina, at South Robeson solar farm in Robeson County and Two Lines Farm in Catawba County.

While Stodden said CU officials are pleased with the promise of the farm, the expected power production is something of a drop in the bucket citywide. Energy produced at the solar farm will equate to roughly 0.5 percent the energy CU produces for annual distribution. Stodden said CU produces about 300 million MW hours annually, including the 100 MW, two-turbine McCartney generating station on 4 acres next door to the planned 5 MW solar farm.

Solar use is not expected to move CU customer rates up or down. Stodden said the cost per kilowatt-hour would be roughly equivalent to the cost associated with the gas-turbine generated power.

He said solar power would be used during peak-use hours in the afternoon to offset dependence on coal-generated power. CU uses natural gas and wind as part of its power portfolio. Energy from burning coal is still significantly less expensive than from other sources, Stodden said, but it also poses the greatest threat to the environment.

“Our biggest challenge is finding what is going to be the next piece of power generation,” he said.

“A lot of people talk about gas plants being the answer to climate change, but gas plants still put out half the C02 emissions of coal plants. When you look at that portfolio mix, you need the gas units as backup. But if we can start finding ways to bring in emission-free power, it really starts hedging that risk of what’s going to happen with carbon.”

Amid an environment where carbon emissions are scrutinized more heavily, he said this project could be the first of several solar farms in the area.

“We see this as a test bed. We’re going to learn from this. I think that in five or 10 years down the road, you’re going to see several of these projects around town this size or bigger,” Stodden said. “There’s a learning curve, and prices still need to drop, but it is going to make more and more sense as time goes on.”

Since 2003, CU has owned two small solar panels and a wind turbine at its TecHouse on South Blackman Road. Nearly 10 percent of CU’s energy comes from renewable sources: roughly 6 percent from the Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Kansas; 3 percent from hydropower; and 0.8 percent from the Noble Hill Landfill Renewable Energy Center.[[In-content Ad]]

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