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Bemidji City Council: Solar energy for BREC?

The city of Bemidji will contribute $5,000 toward the cost of a consultant to assess solar energy opportunities at the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

The city's Sustainability Committee plans to apply for a Rural Energy Development Initiative grant that would allocate $10,000 toward the hiring of a consultant.

But the grant requires a 50 percent local match.

The Bemidji City Council on Monday voted 7-0 to allocate $5,000 from the BREC's contingency fund toward the cost of the consultant, if the grant is approved.

"I think it's worth it," said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

The unanimous vote was somewhat surprising, considering that Councilor Barb Meuers has consistently voted against BREC budget items.

"I think $5,000 is a good investment," said Meuers, who made the motion to approve the request.

Erika Bailey-Johnson, a member of the city's Sustainability Committee and sustainability coordinator for Bemidji State University, presented the request to the council.

The consultant would be hired full-time for three months to examine the possibilities of and determine the best location for a solar photovoltaic system in the south shore redevelopment.

Once a location is identified, the consultant would apply for a Solar Energy Legacy Grant with the potential of receiving $150,000 to purchase and install the system.

The solar energy system would be used in conjunction with the already-planned geothermal heat-pump system.

"Geothermal is a fantastic energy source since it utilizes the fairly constant temperature of the earth's crust below the surface to circulate a pre-heated or pre-cooled surface (either air or water)," Bailey-Johnson wrote in a letter to the council. "The disadvantage of geothermal is the inefficiencies in circulating the substance."

Pumps, usually using fossil fuels, are required to circulate the substance.

"The use of fossil fuels, many feel, negates the advantages of using geothermal," Bailey-Johnson wrote.

She said solar and wind energy is not perfect as it still requires the use of fossil fuels to manufacture the mechanical needs for capture the energy.

But, "the energy source is free and not polluting," she said, noting that wind and sunlight occur naturally.

Select city councilors asked Bailey-Johnson if the cost of the solar system would generate enough energy to completely replace the cost of running the geothermal pumps.

Bailey-Johnson said, in her estimation, it would take a 20 kilowatt solar system to replace the pumps.

But, she noted, solar energy is "inconsistent" as the sun is not out all of the time.

"There is no return on investment with the alternative," she said of fossil fuel-based energies.

Still, she said, the return on investment for renewable energies is lower as the exact cost of their use is unknown.

"That's just a question mark in the future," Bailey-Johnson said.

The consultant, she said, would examine the cost of the system and determine the benefits it would provide.

Additionally, he or she would look at the options available for locating the system in the south shore.

"There are a lot of options," Bailey-Johnson said, noting that solar energy systems no longer necessarily have to be placed on top of roofs or on buildings.