Grand Rapids looking at solar energy projects

September 3, 2010
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The city of Grand Rapids recently received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to install a solar panel system on a few roofs. Deciding which buildings will receive the panels is the city’s next step in the process.

To that end, City Engineer Marc De Clercq said the city is looking to hire a consultant to assist with that determination and is putting out a request for proposals. Calling it a preliminary design study, De Clercq said the city was willing to spend $30,000 on the effort, money that will come from the city’s water department.

“We’re in the middle of developing that request for proposals that pretty much outlines our expectations and the scope of work that we’re anticipating, some of the grant requirements and a schedule,” said De Clercq.

“In accordance with the grant requirements, we have to look at multiple locations within the city’s public facilities, which could be within the water department’s facilities, or the environmental services group’s facilities, or other public facilities within the city that make sense, are feasible and have a good payback or return on investment,” he added.

Ideally, De Clercq said he hopes the preliminary study produces a ranking of which buildings offer the greatest return on investment, meaning the largest savings on energy bills. “Then we will make a decision from there which (buildings) are the most appropriate,” he said.

De Clercq said there are a number of factors that will play into which buildings get the panels, such as whether a facility’s energy system has to be replaced to accommodate a solar upgrade and whether a building is sufficiently insulated to generate the cost savings the city wants from the project. “You kind of have to look at it from that perspective,” he said.

Once a consultant is aboard and the study is underway, De Clercq thought the city would know within a couple of months where the solar panels will be installed.

The DOE grant program promotes and supports clean energy technologies and practices, but it also requires that the city invest at least $250,000 into the project. So the project’s total cost should be around $500,000; local funds are supposed to pick up half the tab.

With solar energy, as with wind, how well the weather cooperates will play a factor in how much savings the city actually will receive. And even in an area that isn’t normally known for an over abundance of sunny days, De Clercq pointed out there still are buildings with solar panels on the roofs.

“You do see solar panels that are in use. I just saw, for example, the Western Michigan University’s Business and Technology Research Center has about six to eight panels that power one of the buildings that is within the research park. I don’t know to what extent they use it for within the building,” he said.

“But a lot of this you can negotiate with Consumers Energy as far as returning power back to their grid and how that can offset your cost. … Anytime that you can offset the power grid and relieve it, I think that you’re adding a positive, rather than weighing more heavily on the grid.”

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