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Effort is under way to explain solar plan to Willmar, Minn., Municipal Utility Commission

Jim Losleben, vice president of business development for tenKsolar of Minneapolis, on Monday addresses the Willmar City Council regarding a solar energy proposal the Municipal Utilities Commission voted against earlier this month. The $1.2 million, 600-kilowatt project would produce enough energy to serve about 2,100 homes. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- An attempt is under way to further explain the proposed solar energy project to Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission members after they voted this month to reject the project.

Jim Losleben, vice president of business development for tenKsolar of Minneapolis, said he intends to meet individually with the seven commission members in an attempt to clear up what Losleben thinks is some misinformation about the project.

The $1.2 million, 600-kilowatt project would produce enough energy to serve about 2,100 homes, according to tenKsolar.

The system would provide electricity at a cost of 7.5 to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour over the 25-year warranty period compared with the current cost of buying power off the grid or producing power at an average cost of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

"The fuel is free,'' said Losleben. "Where can you buy something today that fixes your cost for that long?''

Time is of the essence for tenKsolar and the Utilities Commission because the deadline to apply for a $600,000 federal stimulus grant for the project is the end of December. Losleben says the grant is crucial to keeping the cost at $1.2 million, which Losleben says tenKsolar trimmed from $2.5 million.

Losleben says the ground-mounted system, which is proposed for the Willmar Municipal Utilities' existing wind turbine site near the high school, would be a large showcase system, which he said is the type that customers want to see.

"That's why we're so anxious also to make an attractive offer because Willmar is two hours away from the Twin Cities and that's a nice little distance for us to take visitors to, with Willmar's permission,'' he said. "We've got orders from Greece, Spain, Italy, and a bunch of quotes out for Great Britain.''

The Utilities Commission meets again Dec. 27, which gives Losleben one final chance to persuade the commission to consider the project before time runs out on the grant.

Losleben and others who support the project doubt Congress will renew the grant program.

Losleben was urged by the Willmar City Council to return to the commission after the council took no action Monday night on a request to veto the commission's rejection of the project.

A former member of the Municipal Utilities Commission, Bob Bonawitz asked the council Monday to veto the rejection of the project and further asked the council to direct Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm to enter into a preliminary agreement with tenKsolar. Gomm has been placed on paid administrative leave by the Municipal Utilities Commission pending an inquiry into possible misconduct and management issues.

"The need to act quickly is because the tax benefits, which are substantial and would apply to this project, end on Dec. 31,'' Bonawitz told the council. "We don't foresee that the feds will renew those.''

The City Charter gives the City Council the power overrule an action of the commission.

However, City Attorney Rich Ronning advised council members that the City Charter contains no language allowing the council to direct either the Utilities Commission or the Rice Hospital Board to do anything, nor language allowing the council to enter into the agreement.

"If you veto the action the MUC took with respect to tenKsolar, you just vetoed something that they didn't want to do,'' he said. "You can veto it if you want to, but it's not going to mean a thing and you can't tell (the Utilities Commission) what to do.''

Losleben hopes to clear up a statement that the utility would be required to make an upfront payment of $1.2 million. Losleben said payments would be made gradually as construction progresses.

"It's a progress payment based on the development and build-out of the site, so it's not a one-time, upfront fee,'' Losleben said.

"It's one heck of an offer for the city of Willmar. We benefit from it also because we're a growing company,'' he said. "We're going to (sell) about $10 million in product this year and our goal next year is $30 million to $40 million and we're starting to quote a lot of off-shore projects.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150