Ashland County recently tapped into the power of the sun as a way to lower its energy costs by taking advantage of affordable solar energy systems.
In 2017, Ashland County Board members approved a request by the county administrator to pursue a project that would begin the County’s exploration of solar power use in county buildings. The Ashland county administrator, the county Zoning Department, city of Ashland, and Ashland County’s UW Extension office staff met with the city of Bayfield, Bayfield County, Cheq Bay Renewables, and a national group called SolSmart to find ways to make it faster, easier, and affordable to go solar.
SolSmart offers experts who provide free technical assistance to help communities develop solar options that help spur solar market growth. In recognition of local achievements, communities can receive designations of Gold, Silver, and Bronze. In January 2018, SolSmart awarded Ashland County a Silver designation for its initiatives that included the installation of solar panels on the county courthouse roof.
From the ground, you can’t see the 105 roof-top photovoltaic panels, but they’ve been generating solar power since October 2018, according to County Administrator Jeff Beirl. “In a few months we’ll have a full year of data that shows how much ‘free’ energy is being generated from the panels,” said Beirl, but preliminary results show that the sun is keeping the courthouse lights on and computers running on energy made by a few kilowatts (even on cloudy days the panels make some energy) to over 50% of the time on sunny days. This is good news for taxpayers!
The panels have a 36 kW total generation capacity, and they cost $95,000 after the county received a Focus on Energy grant that reduced the cost by almost $18,000. The county’s general budget capital improvement fund paid for the cost of the panels that were installed by North Wind Renewable Energy of Stevens Point. At the current rate of energy generation, the energy savings should pay for itself in about 14 years.
The public is invited to review a web site that monitors the courthouse energy use and solar energy generation in real time, as well as calculates cost savings. The web address is http://egauge38840.egaug.es/5B43B/
For example, on June 20—the day before the summer solstice last week—the energy required by courthouse offices was 419 kilowatts (kWh), and the panels generated 241 kWh, or about 55% of the energy needed. The sun “paid for” $31 of the energy used that day, which was more than half the day’s cost of $54!
In the last six months, courthouse offices have used 73 MWh of energy which cost about $10,000. During that time, the solar system generated 18 MWh, which saved approximately $2,725, or an average of almost 19% of the cost during a dark winter and a cloudy spring. This savings rate is expected to increase during the summer months; for example, in the last three sunnier months this year, the sun saved the county about $1,900.
Other initiatives the county worked on through the SolSmart plan included developing ways to make a solar photovoltaic permit process more streamlined for homeowners and businesses; a review of current zoning requirements that might inhibit use of solar panels; and ways to integrate solar options into relevant local plans, such as the county’s comprehensive plan.
The county is looking at additional buildings it owns to see where solar options might be feasible including the law enforcement center and the Highway Department’s garage. These developments would happen depending on funding availability; it’s possible to pursue grants for these projects since county capitol funds are currently earmarked for other projects.
Future initiatives to reduce the county’s energy costs are being evaluated and may include energy conservation practices or devices in county buildings, additional SolSmart practices to earn a Gold designation level, and outreach programs about the value of renewable energy to the community and through youth groups.
For example, the Extension office now has a tabletop “green house model” that incorporates many energy- and water-saving features into a dollhouse-size structure that illustrates ways to reduce costs and environmental impacts. Staff take it to community events, such as a home and garden show and the Ashland County Fair, to show how homeowners can incorporate simple practices into their homes.
For more information, contact the Extension Ashland County office at 715-682-7017. More information about the SolSmart program and the courthouse installation will be available on the Extension web page at https://ashland.extension.wisc.edu/
Lissa Radke is the Community Development Specialist for the UW-Madison Division of Extension, Ashland County.
Check out the slideshow below to view pictures of the Ashland County Solar Panels!