MOUNT VERNON — For a decade, Knox County commissioners have explored the idea of using solar for electricity but continually encountered obstacles. National and international issues stymied a planned switch in 2017.
Now it's back in play.
On Thursday, the commissioners signed a letter of intent to put 20 to 25 percent of their electric use toward solar, a move that Commissioner Thom Collier said would save the county “tens of thousands of dollars a year.”
This time, however, the county won't buy its solar grid as previously planned. Instead, Knox County will join a statewide coalition of counties working through the County Commissioners Association of Ohio Service Corp. and Palmer Energy Co.
“I think we are excited to think we're finally able to do something with solar,” said Commissioner Teresa Bemiller. “I think this is a better way to go rather than on our own because we keep running into roadblocks.”
The project involves building a solar field in southern Ohio at no cost to the counties. The contractor awarded the job will fund the project. Palmer Energy is working to identify at least 40 counties that will join together and buy at least a portion of their electric use from solar.
“The contractor makes his money off of the electric that is sent back to the grid,” said County Administrator Jason Booth. “They are talking at least a 100 million dollar project with 40 counties and municipalities.”
It takes at least 40 counties to make the project feasible. The letter of intent lets Palmer Energy know how many counties are interested. If the project is a go, Knox County will have a 10- to 20-year commitment to buy electricity through the aggregation program.
The county started exploring the solar option around 2010, most recently in 2016. An International Trade Commission lawsuit delayed a planned switch in March 2017. The lawsuit related to solar panel dumping into the United States.
The ITC sided with the U.S. companies filing the lawsuit. Early in 2018, President Donald Trump implemented tariffs on solar cells and modules, resulting in market turmoil. The county once again put solar plans on hold.
The county's initial interest was for all of its county buildings to use solar electricity. Factors such as logistics of where to place solar panels, how many the county would need, and the diverse location of county buildings led the commissioners to narrow the solar option down to the Knox County Jail, which accounts for about 44 percent of the county's electric use.
“The water/wastewater department is a huge user of electricity, larger than the jail usage, but under the previous proposal, we wouldn't have that availability,” said Collier. “This covers all of our electric use, not just use in the jail.”
“That was one of the things that was stopping us,” agreed Bemiller. “It wasn't taking into account all of our buildings.”
“Over the next 20 years, we could add buildings, shut down buildings, or move them,” said Booth. “It doesn't matter; they are still under solar.”
Booth said that committing only 20 to 25 percent of electric to solar gives the county flexibility in terms of future technology and pricing.
“If you have up to a 20-year commitment, you don't want to lock in 50 percent,” he explained. “We don't know what could happen in five to 10 years. We'll have 20 to 25 percent locked in, but you still have 75 percent of regular electric, so if something better comes up, you have flexibility.”
If enough counties express interest in the “green” project, the coalition will seek requests for proposals (RFP) from contractors to build the solar plant. The RFP will include recommendations where to locate the plant.
Booth said he attended a meeting last week where the coalition idea was very well received.
“There was a lot of participation by the counties,” he said.
The goal is to have the grid in use and saving counties money by May 2022.