Utilities Commission rejects further study of proposed solar energy project in Willmar, Minn.
WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission on Tuesday rejected a motion to study the feasibility of a solar project for Willmar Municipal Utilities at this time.
The commission defeated a motion to sign a nonbinding letter of intent with tenKsolar of Minneapolis to study the feasibility of a 600-kilowatt-hour project as a showcase to prospective national and worldwide customers. The study had been proposed by tenKsolar executives Joel Cannon, chief executive officer, and Jim Losleben, business development vice president.
The commission Dec. 12 defeated a resolution to approve a five-year solar power purchase agreement with tenKsolar. However, tenKsolar officials were urged by the City Council on Dec. 19 to make one last proposal to the commission.
Officials asked the commission to approve the nonbinding letter before Friday's deadline to apply for a $600,000 federal grant, which would keep the project's cost to Willmar at $1.2 million.
Commissioners said they were concerned about the cost. Also, they felt rejection would not jeopardize the utility's negotiations with the federal Environmental Protection Agency for renewal of the power plant air quality permit, and that Willmar could possibly buy energy from other sources to comply with mandates for obtaining energy from renewable resources.
Commissioner Steve Salzer said Willmar is part of a coalition of 10 to 11 other utilities that joined with Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency to study and request power supply proposals, which may include wind or nuclear energy, to meet future needs and get the best deal as a group.
"I feel it's important that we get that in place and then we kind of know where we need to go with renewables after that,'' said Salzer. "I don't feel a real need for (the solar project) at this point.''
Commissioner Matt Schrupp clarified that the solar project would provide less than two-tenths of 1 percent or less than 700,000 kilowatt-hours of power compared to Willmar's total usage of more than 275 million kilowatt-hours. Losleben said he inaccurately told the Tribune that the solar project would provide enough energy to 2,100 homes.
Schrupp questioned tenKsolar's financial analysis that claimed a payback of 9 to 13 years. "It appears to be a best-case analysis. It's not proven and it's a very big project for an untested performance of solar,'' said Schrupp.
Also, Schrupp questioned if rejection of the solar project would hurt Willmar's negotiations with EPA. He felt EPA should look more favorably on Willmar's use of the turbines.
During discussion, WMU's General Manager Bruce Gomm, who is currently on a 30-day administrative leave pending an investigation, was given permission to address the meeting. He said he had been negotiating with EPA since the utility complied with the agency's request for information about power plant maintenance improvements during the last 20 years.
"As part of the negotiations they've been very interested in the fact that we're considering a solar project,'' Gomm said. "We told them that we're looking at the possibility of doing a solar project and each of the calls that we had with them regarding our negotiations, they've continually asked us the status of this solar project. So the feeling that I have is that it is very important to them and could be critical to successful negotiations with them.''
Gomm said he is also concerned that unsuccessful negotiations could result in substantial legal fees to defend against possible maintenance violations. EPA has provided no details, however.
"We were working to avoid having to go through that process by coming to successful negotiations, but without those successful negotiations, I also have a serious concern about the future viability of the power plant because items that the EPA could impose on the utility could prevent that plant from being viable in the future,'' he said.