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City council explores possibility of solar power, joining Nebraska Community Energy Alliance

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The City of Grand Island and the Utilities Department may begin using solar panel in the near future.

Utilities Director Tim Luchsinger gave a presentation to the city council as part of a study session Tuesday night,

Luchsinger told the council that in the late 1990s, the Utilities Department began exploring wind power and became a minority partner in various wind projects. He added solar power may be the future and the Utilities Department would like to explore its possibility as a renewable energy resource.

The Utilities Department plans to potentially do a small, pilot solar project at a site near JBS at the corner of Swift Road and Museum Drive. It would be a one-megawatt project that would provide power to 180 homes on an annual basis.

The projected cost to a developer would be about $40,000 a year. Luchsinger said this is a “very small” portion for utilities to pay when power purchases are around $15-20 million a year.

“Solar power is a higher priced power compared to (other) energy sources at this time. But the overall cost to utilities should be a very minor cost,” Luchsinger said. “The intent of this project is to see how the operations of the solar projects on a utility scale works, the operational uses it has and what the costs may be.”

Councilman Roger Steele said he read a recent article in The Economist magazine that stated wind and solar energy were less expensive than conventional energy sources. He questioned Luchsinger on his claim that solar power is a higher priced energy source compared to the Utilities Department’s other energy sources.

Luchsinger responded that based on the price of the proposals for the solar project the Utilities Department has gotten so far, solar power is higher than the department’s other energy sources.

Councilman Mitch Nickerson called the proposal brought forth by Luchsinger a “wise way to get into the business” as it allows room for expansion. He complimented him on his approach to start with a small solar project before investing in a larger project.

Nickerson questioned how many more megawatts of power would be produced on lands that will be developed within the city limits. Luchsinger said if these lands are developed, the Utilities Department would be looking at generating “a few hundred megawatts.”

The city council also heard a presentation from City Administrator Marlan Ferguson on the Nebraska Energy Alliance and the potential of Grand Island entering into an interlocal agreement to join the alliance.

Ferguson said Kearney’s Assistant City Manager Paul Briseno encouraged Grand Island to join the alliance.

The alliance includes 26 Nebraska communities, including Central City, Hastings and Kearney.

It was founded in 2014 “to sponsor the first Nebraska Environmental Trust grant of $403,000” for purchasing electric and natural gas vehicles, as well as charging stations, “to demonstrate the economic and air quality benefits.”

Ferguson said some benefits on joining the alliance would include applying for grants to purchase electric cars for the city to use in its operations. He added the city could also install charging stations that benefit not only the city’s departments, but community members as well.

The cost to the city to join the alliance would be $1,000.

Council members did not have questions about Grand Island potentially joining the Nebraska Energy Alliance, but a couple community members showed up at Tuesday’s study session to voice their support.

Grand Island resident Brian Whitecalf said he has visited a number of charging stations, including the ones at Bosselman Travel Center and Tom Dinsdale in Grand Island and at the Hastings Museum in Hastings.

Whitecalf said of the idea of Grand Island potentially getting more electric charging stations by joining the alliance was a “great idea” that he fully supports. He added it takes about 30 minutes to charge an electric vehicle and encouraged the city council to install the charging stations at a safe and convenient location.

Ferguson said in an interview prior to Tuesday’s meeting that he hopes to present an interlocal agreement for Grand Island to join the Nebraska Energy Alliance at next week’s council meeting.

In other action, the city council also heard a presentation from City Attorney Jerry Janulewicz and Finance Director Renae Griffiths on unpaid delinquent special assessments.

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