Airport Solar Array Will Save City, School District Money

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By: 
Kevin Murphy

MIDDLETON–The solar array to be installed at the Middleton Municipal Airport is estimated to save the city of Middleton and the Middleton-Cross Plains School District a combined estimated $1.41 million during the next 30 years compared to rates from non-renewable energy sources, according to local officials.

The school district anticipates saving $28,381 in electricity costs during the first year the array is operational and $1.059 million by 2048, according to Perry Hibner, district spokesman.

“We are basing the savings on the current prices for electricity and fuels. If they go up, our savings should go up. If they go down, our savings would be less,” he wrote Tuesday in response to a reporter’s questions.

The city should save an estimated $353,000 during the next 30 years, said Abby Attoun, director of planning and community development.

The airport solar array, combined with other budgeted or constructed solar initiatives, also should push the city government halfway toward its renewable energy goal, Attoun said.

The Common Council set a goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electricity needs from renewable energy by 2035. Discussions have begun at the school district about development a renewable energy policy.

“We live in a community and region that values the environment and understands there are consequences to using fossil fuels. We are always looking for ways that we can be good partners and good stewards of taxpayer money,” Hibner wrote.

On Monday, the Public Service Commission issued a written Renewable Energy Rider (RER) that set the cost of electricity to be generated by the 17,000-panel solar array at the airport at $.06 per kilowatt hour with a two percent annual escalator.

The REF contract with MGE is for 30 years.

“RER helps us get to our goals even faster than compared with doing our own projects here and there,” Attoun said.

The city is buying 0.5 megawatt and the school district is buying one megawatt of the solar array’s 5-megawatt output. The remainder will be available for subscription to residents and business customers through MGE’s Shared Solar Program.

The advantage to the city is the stable electricity rate the rider provides into the future, Attoun said.

“There’s an assumption that energy rates will go up in the future faster than the rate in the rider,” she said.

The array is to be built on approximately 22 acres in a buffer area north of the paved runway and east of the crosswind grass runway. MGE hasn’t determined when construction will begin but Attoun hopes it’s this year, noting that the contractor has order the materials. 

“If it is built this year, it would be the largest solar project in the state…in terms of output,” she said.

However, it will be greatly eclipsed when the 300-megawatt Badger Hollow Solar Farm goes online. That project is designed to be the biggest in the Midwest with one million solar panels spread across 3,500 acres in Iowa County. The project was approved by the PSC in April.

“The solar array will utilize ‘tracking’ technology to increase the amount of sunlight the panels can ‘harvest’ by more than 25 percent compared to fixed solar arrays,” according to Kaya Freiman, MGE’s spokesperson.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave final approval for the airport array earlier this month finding it a compatible use with the lease revenue dedicated to airport purposes.

The lease with MGE is the greater of $400 per acre, with a two percent annual escalator, or 120 percent of the average non-irrigated cropland cash rental charged in Dane County, according to Attoun.

The land lease is separate from the RER as MGE planned to have the array built whether or not the city or school district wanted to subscribe to its output, she said.

The array is estimated to cost $8.6 million to construct, according Freiman.

The city has a solar array on the roof of the Municipal Operations Center (MOC), currently the largest in the state at a municipal installation. Also, one on the roof of the police station plus a pavilion on Terrace Ave.

The city doesn’t contract for output from MOC roof array, Attoun said. Instead, MGE leased the location in exchange for constructing an array on the roof of the police station which provides 25 percent of electricity used at the building, the largest electricity user among city departments, she said.

Three more arrays have been included in the 2019 capital budget but not yet constructed. They are to be located on the roofs of the recycling center, the EMS building and the senior center.

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