Commissioners give go-ahead for solar on 47 public buildings

Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge in Tennessee.
Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge in Tennessee.

By Leslee Kulba

Asheville – Buncombe County’s Sustainability Officer Jeremiah LeRoy asked the commissioners to accept the low bid, from MB Haynes, to add solar collectors to 47 public buildings. The projects were a mixture of rooftop and ground-based solar arrays, and the buildings selected represented the low-hanging fruit from lists submitted by the county, the City of Asheville, Buncombe County Schools, Asheville City Schools, and AB Tech.

Originally, the county expected to pay $2.9 million to put solar fixtures on fourteen of its buildings, but MB Haynes estimated it would cost only $2.44 million. With that level of savings, the county accepted projects from the other organizations as well. The total project cost for the county is now estimated at $10.28 million. Asheville will be paying for work on seven of its buildings that made the list. The reasons given for the savings were that combining the projects for a single bid realized efficiencies of scale and business had been slow during the COVID-19 shutdown. 

LeRoy estimated that financing the project for fifteen years would cost another $2.2 million, but that the city could save $2.4 million with Duke Energy’s solar rebates. Buncombe Commissioner Joe Belcher asked if the number listed for rebates was guaranteed, and he was told the program was highly underutilized. Within its three years of existence, having added 2.5 megawatts to its capacity each year, the rebates for nonprofits had only supported half a megawatt in projects to date.

The commissioners were asked to approve taking on debt, albeit persons participating in solar comment urged the commissioners to “support the solar bond.” Finance Director Don Warn said it would cost the city $150,000 to float the debt, and interest on principal plus issuance would run around 1.7% to 2.7%, bringing total financing to $11.56 million – $12.48 million. Funds for paying the debt would come in part from the capital funds of partners. 

Once the systems were operational, funds that had been paying utility costs would be diverted to debt service. Warn estimated utility savings would be $27.2 million over 30 years and said that was not a naïve estimate, but its assumptions included industry standards like a 3% annual escalation in pricing. Costs of maintenance and operation were also included and ran low, as solar systems have very few moving parts. According to projections, if the county only received half the rebates it expected to get, the projects would still start paying for themselves after about 11 years. 

Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman noted in recent years schools have listed rising utility costs as a prime driver in their demands for increased funding. “We’re already paying those bills,” he noted. 

There was so much demand for solar projects, staff thought they could start work on identifying projects for a second cohort in a month or two. LeRoy said the county had 83 buildings and many that did not make the first cut would be suitable for solar adaptation. In addition, UNC Asheville or the Asheville Regional Airport are good candidate partners.

Belcher said Isaac Dickson Elementary had been very passionate about getting solar fixtures and asked why they didn’t make the list. He was told the school’s PTO had launched an ambitious fundraising campaign, received a very large private donation, and had already bid out a contract and selected local firm Sundance Solar. Because the fundraising was a private affair, LeRoy couldn’t answer questions about how much it cost, only estimating it had to be in the realm of five digits.

Buncombe Commissioner Al Whitesides explained how it happened. “The eight years I was on the school board, Isaac Dickson – not only do they have the strongest PTO in the county, but they function – they started their own afterschool program 10 years ago and it’s still going strong. And they’re fortunate because those parents go deep in their pockets and they have a lot of, uh, (He made a hand gesture indicating a euphemism was coming.) connections. They can get the money.”

Following a discussion of environmental gains, Newman took the opportunity to thank the schools; in particular, the students, for “pushing” the endeavor. “They know that while the financial analysis turned out to be so attractive for this project, with savings of over $15 million over the next three decades on our utility costs, they know that climate change is the biggest threat facing their future. We have to take it on, and we have to switch over to renewable energy as fast as we can, and that’s going to be one of the biggest undertakings we as a society have ever taken on. In the scheme of things, this is a modest step in that direction. Time is not on our side.”

In Other Matters

During the commissioners’ premeeting briefing, Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield and Ted Figura, who chairs the I-26 Aesthetics Committee formed by the city council, asked for a commitment of at least $2 million. Successes they celebrated to date included preventing the NC DOT from widening I-26 west of Asheville to 8 lanes, reconfiguring Patton Avenue/I-240 for exclusively local traffic, and keeping the Bowen Bridge at four lanes.

Things they want that the DOT will not fund include iconic bridges at the city’s gateways, other bridges built to look like the Blue Ridge Parkway underpasses, and sleek, pensive structures to cross the French Broad River. Other design elements include multimodal lanes, stacked stone retaining walls, naturalistic landscaping, decorative railings, TDA-style wayfinding, artistic bus shelters, street trees, themed lights, and art medallions on bridges.

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