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Solar Panel Proposal Lights Up Council Meeting

POSTED September 11, 2012 11:23 p.m.

The Tuesday, Sept. 4 Oakdale City Council meeting – held a day later than usual due to the Labor Day holiday ‑ was highlighted with city officials discussing the likelihood of moving forward with a solar panel site at the wastewater treatment plant that is expected to dramatically reduce energy costs.

The city agreed to allot $25,000 in consulting costs to Siemens Inc., a worldwide energy corporation, for the feasibility study of the project. In the end, the city would not have to pay the cost of the study if it moves forward with Siemens for the rows upon rows of planned solar panels that would be installed at the wastewater plant site. If the city chooses another company, then the fee would be due.

Like many cities in California that are struggling economically, Oakdale is seeking resourceful ideas to help reduce costs. If the proposal moves forward, the solar array that would be owned and operated by Siemens and installed at no cost to Oakdale, would allow the city to purchase electricity at a fixed and guaranteed rate for 20 years. The city would also be eligible for an array of clean air and renewable energy credits that are expected to increase in value over time.

At the meeting, Siemens officials projected that the city would save between $850,000 and $1.9 million in electricity costs over the 20-year contract, which could be renewed. More solar panels could also be added later if energy demands increase.

“Based on the Atwater experience, Siemens is a wise thing to investigate,” said Special Projects Manager Greg Wellman, who made the presentation.

Earlier this year the city of Atwater installed a similar solar farm from Siemens for its wastewater treatment plant. Wellman, who was the former interim city manager for Oakdale, was the city manager for Atwater for eight years before his retirement in 2010.

“I don’t see any drawback to this,” said Councilman Mike Brennan. “This is a way of keeping money in our pockets. To me it’s nothing but a winning situation.”

However, despite the financial benefits and gain to the environment, some barriers may exist.

When the wastewater treatment plant was built, the city arranged for it to fall within the Modesto Irrigation District for power services.

Councilwoman Kathy Morgan, who said she feels she is a proponent of solar energy, told the group that she’s made calls to MID and learned they don’t approve this type of project if it isn’t owned by the customer.

“We need to do some more legwork before we move forward,” Morgan said.

Councilman Tom Dunlop also said MID may be resistant to the project because they may not have recovered their original costs for the infrastructure installed to provide power to the site.

Wellman showed concern that council members were contacting MID officials without city staff knowledge and felt those calls could be jeopardizing to the negotiations with MID.

Council members asked for the study contract to be deemed complete, that the city and Siemens would have to receive approval from MID for the solar panels at the site.

Siemens agreed that the study would only be complete and feasible if there was no resistance from MID.

During discussion, Brennan said he believed federal and state officials will soon be forcing more “green act” legislation for this type of energy project.

The measure passed 4-0.

During its closed session, the council approved a new contract with city attorney Thomas P. Hallinan, who also represents the cities of Patterson, Riverbank and Newman. He has held the position since 2004. The new contract calls for Hallinan to receive $4500 per month. He will no longer receive PERS pension benefits as before.

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