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Tompkins County preparing to add solar panels to seven buildings

TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY — Sunny skies in Tompkins County could mean energy savings for a handful of county-owned buildings.

The Tompkins County Legislature last week unanimously approved for the county to enter into a 15-year lease with a Buffalo energy company to install and maintain a total of seven solar energy systems atop county-owned buildings, including the Health Department, Human Services building and its annex on West State Street.

To secure funding for the project, county officials this month scrambled to take advantage of a lease program through Buffalo-based Solar Liberty. Covered by federal tax credits and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) grants, the lease program expires at year’s end and defrays most of the cost, which totals around $1 million.

A resolution, unanimously backed by members of the county’s facilities and infrastructure committee, states that the county’s share for the seven installations by Solar Liberty is $10,260 per year for 15 years, and energy savings would cover that annual cost and net a projected savings of $9,200 each year.

All told, the county would save $138,000 in electric costs over 15 years.

County Administrator Joe Mareane said Solar Liberty guarantees that the county’s annual savings will cover the $10,260 yearly lease cost.

“The worst-case scenario – it would be cost neutral,” he said.

Other county buildings that could receive solar panels are Public Safety (Warren Road), Public Works (Bostwick Road), Annex Building C, which houses the board of elections’ offices (East Buffalo Street) and Emergency Response (Brown Road).

Legislator Carol Chock, who serves as facilities and infrastructure committee chairwoman, said a total of about 3,000 square feet of roof space would be required to accommodate the six 25-kilowatt systems and one 20-kilowatt system.

The 25-kilowatt systems include arrays of 116 panels each, while the smaller 20-kilowatt system includes 96 panels. The solar panels are projected to offset electric usage in the seven county buildings by 20 percent and are covered under a 25-year warranty.

Tompkins County Facilities Director Arel LeMaro said Solar Liberty would do a structural analysis of the seven buildings before placing the panels, which must be installed by October 2012. The solar panels would be installed at a 10-degree angle to reduce snow accumulation on the array and wouldn’t require any punctures into the rooftops, he said. If a panel breaks, Solar Liberty would cover the replacement and installation costs.

The county, however, would foot the bill if any of the seven buildings needed reinforcements to support the panels, which weigh about 41 pounds each.

LeMaro said any structural improvements should be undertaken before the panels are installed; moving or replacing them costs $2,500 to $3,000 per site. After 15 years, the county would have the option to remove the panels or buy them at then-current market value, he said.

Chock said the solar panel investment saves dollars and aligns with the county’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

“We’re interested in this opportunity because it allows us to move forward with our goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the county in a way that does not require money with this year’s budget,” she said. “It’s meeting our goal to reduce emissions and save dollars for tax payers, county expenditures and demonstrate to the public that renewable energy sources do work.”

A privately held company, Solar Liberty was founded in 2003 and began installing solar panels in 2005. Since then, they’ve installed solar panel systems for scores of New York state businesses, schools, municipal buildings, non-profits and homeowners. Its Solar Liberty Foundation also assists in outfitting less-developed areas with renewable energy solutions. The company uses solar panels manufactured in the U.S., according to Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning and Public Works Ed Marx.

At the Dec. 6 Legislative meeting, Legislator Frank Proto asked the county attorney what would happen if Solar Liberty went belly-up.

“In the event the company goes bankrupt,” Jonathan Wood responded, “it would be a breach of the lease, and Tompkins County has various options to protect the county.”

Legislator Michael Lane said the move makes sense.

“Tompkins County led the way on solar panels with the library,” he said before the vote. “It has provided electric power for us ever since. Let’s take another step here. It’s not perfect, but it sends the right message to people that solar power makes sense to the county and people of New York.”

By Louis DiPietro
The Ithaca Times