A dream the city manager and the chief operator at Hurricane's wastewater plant share is coming true.
John Thayer and Ben Newhouse believe alternative energy sources are necessary, and it's only a matter of days before their dream comes to fruition and the city starts saving money by using solar energy.
"We can't keep depending on one source of energy," said Newhouse, the city manager. "We need to consider having back-up plans."
Hurricane's water reclamation plant, which handles the city's wastewater, has been equipped with 84 solar panels, which Newhouse says will save the city about $1,000 a month.
"Our plant costs the city a lot of money — around $15,000 a month — to operate," he said.
The plant is a $35 million operation, Newhouse said. He said people often take for granted how much it costs to run that type of facility.
Colin Williams, director of operations for Mountain View Solar, the company hired to install the system, said the project is the first time in the state, and possibly on the entire East Coast, that solar panels have been installed at a wastewater plant.
"Wastewater treatment plants require some of the largest amounts of energy in municipalities," he said. "Pumps are working 24/7, and require a tremendous amount of energy to be used."
Because of a $193,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Hurricane taxpayers won't have to pay a dime for the new panels.
In April, the City Council approved Mountain View Solar's bid of approximately $135,000. The Morgan County firm's estimate was the lowest submitted and is more than $50,000 less than the amount of the grant.
Newhouse said the department will monitor how the city's solar project works, and make a decision on whether or not to allow it to use the extra money for similar projects.
The system's net-metering feature is programmed to run backward when excess electricity is produced, essentially turning the power company into a storage system for the solar-powered building. Williams said that when the solar panels are producing more energy than the building is consuming, it flows back into the grid, creating energy credits.
"We're considering installing more solar panels at the wastewater plant, because we have a large piece of land there and it's already wired for them -- it's a logical choice," Newhouse said. "The more panels added, the more money the city will save." Williams said the 19.74-kilowatt system will generate about 25,000 kilowatt-hours a year, which is enough to power two or three average-size homes.
The panels come with a 25-year manufacturer's warranty, but the expected life of a solar panel is 30 to 40 years, and, Williams said, the installation typically pays for itself in about 10 years.
"In the first year, it will save the city about $12,500," he said, "and every time there's a rate increase, the savings will get better."
The solar-panel system requires very little maintenance besides a periodic cleaning to keep the panels free of dust and pollen.
"It's a very simple system, the equipment is very robust and designed to work in outer space -- where people can't get to them" Williams said.
The panels, which sit on the ground on racks beside the plant, are angled to obtain optimum solar exposure, Newhouse said. The fact that travelers on Interstate 64 can see them is not a mistake.
"This is something we can illustrate to people and show them we're trying to make long-term investments and minimize our effect on current resources," Newhouse said.
Kathy Cosco, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said that although sustainability measures often cost more up front, the investment pays off over time.
"We don't want to use up all our resources today, we'll need them in the future," she said. "We should be doing things with an eye on conservation to help ensure we'll be able to do what we're doing now decades down the road."
Cosco said that although the DEP doesn't have funds available to help cities with solar projects, it does have a representative who can help point people in the right direction to apply for grants like the one Hurricane received.
Bill Willis of state's Division of Energy said Hurricane is one of four solar-energy projects in the state funded by federal stimulus money.
Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com