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City of Bemidji to seek grant for solar energy at BREC

The Bemidji City Council cautiously offered its support Monday for a grant application that could fund a portion of the installation of solar energy panels outside of the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

The solar photovoltaic system would include 104 250-watt solar panels. The preferred location would have them acting as a canopy over a section of 10-12 parking spaces in the main parking lot outside of the BREC.

While councilors were generally supportive of solar energy, they also were concerned about the cost of the system.

Bonestroo, led by Phil Carlson, its director of planning, recently completed a feasibility study on the project with the help of the city's Sustainability Committee.

The estimated cost for the parking lot option would be about $270,000. A federal grant administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce Office of Energy Security, if approved, would provide up to $100,000 toward the project. But the source of the remaining $170,000 is unknown.

Carlson stressed that those funds would not have to be city dollars. Other grants could be obtained to decrease that figure.

Still, some councilors found that number difficult to accept. Especially since the solar energy system does not offer a good return on investment.

The system would generate about 27,500 kilowatt-hours a year, which would translate into $10 per kwh. Currently, Otter Tail Power Company charges 7 cents per kwh.

"This system will not save you money in the short end," Carlson said.

Rather, it would serve as a statement of the city's commitment to alternative energy systems and could include an education portion that would showcase what the system is able to accomplish.

Councilor Roger Hellquist noted that the system would not be tied directly to the BREC. Rather, any energy garnered would be fed back into the Otter Tail system, and the city would be compensated for its contributions.

Hellquist said, too, that cost estimates did not include the costs for maintenance. Hellquist, who said he has experience with similar projects, expects that the technology in the field will drastically increase in the next 5-10 years; he wasn't sure that the panels, if bought today, would be supported too far into the future.

"It's a token gesture of being green," Hellquist said.

Most councilors shared similar concerns, but the majority was comfortable allowing Bonestroo to at least apply for the federal grant. The council voted 4-2 to move forward. In favor were Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Jerry Downs, Ron Johnson and Barb Meuers. Opposed were Hellquist and Councilor Greg Negard. Absent was Councilor Kevin Waldhausen.

There were a couple of surprising votes at the table. The first came from Meuers, who acknowledged that she is nearly always opposed to all spending related to the BREC.

"But this is the one thing I would vote for," she said, making the motion to approve.

Also surprising, perhaps, was Lehmann's vote to approve. The vote followed significant discussion, during which Lehmann sided most often with Hellquist.

Downs said he would be OK applying for the grant as long as the council was not obligate to contribute a great deal of dollars toward the project.

He noted that the BREC already is a "green" building in that it will use geothermal heat and is built according to Minnesota building specifications.

"Solar power is just one way of going green," he said. "It's not the only way."