Solar energy, reduced energy use discussed by Fort Smith Board

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,453 views 

Fort Smith City Directors are considering the steps needed to make city properties more energy efficient and for the possibilities of solar to power city facilities. One idea includes a 30-acre solar farm that would cost a third party around $6 million.

The city entered into an agreement March 14 with Oklahoma City-based OG&E to participate in the Universal Solar Program. According to the agreement, OG&E gives the city naming rights to a Utility Solar Field on Highway 22 in Branch in return for the city participating in the program.

“This agreement should provide greater savings for the City, and the facility will be named the Fort Smith facility. The sign at the facility will feature the City of Fort Smith’s logo and reference ‘Energizing the Arkansas River Valley,’” noted a memo from Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman regarding the agreement.

The agreement requires the city to purchase 50% of their annual kilowatt hours (kWs) of electricity from the OG&E solar farm and limit the city’s own on-site or self-generated power to 20% of the city’s use (during non-emergency times, so power outages would be excluded from that limitation) for its small accounts.

During a Board of Directors study session Tuesday (May 9), Joshua Robertson, deputy director of business administration/utilities, reported on an Energy Master Plan for the city he has developed with the support of CLEAResult, an energy consultant sponsored by OG&E. In 2021, Fort Smith collaborated with CLEAResult to conduct a city energy benchmark study on its main facilities. City energy usage from March 2019 to February 2020 was used for the study.

That energy usage was compared to other regional municipalities. The Energy Benchmark Study provided an in-depth facility-by-facility view of energy use, highlighted the city’s best-performing and worst-performing buildings based on energy use per square foot and compared how buildings performed versus similar-sized municipalities in similar climate zones, Robertson said. The study found that the city’s energy usage was “a lot higher than the median,” Robertson said.

“The Energy Master Plan will mobilize City Departments and coordinate efforts toward reducing energy costs. All City projects that involve our facilities will be run through an energy efficiency opportunity register to seek incentives for upgrades planned and completed. It will also lay the foundation of commitment to gain energy efficiency and decrease carbon footprint. Once the plan has been adopted through a City Resolution, we can begin centralizing our energy usage tracking and begin projects for efficiency and further sustainability,” Robertson said in a memo.

Many of the programs that have and can be implemented are qualified for cash incentives or funding that can pay for part or all of the projects, Robertson said. He noted that when the lights at the city’s parking garage were switched to LED, 99% of the cost was paid by the OG&E program.

City facilities tapped for improvements include the service shop and the breakroom in the service shop at the landfill, the Creekmore Tennis Center, the Riverfront Pavilion and parks department maintenance office.

Ethan Townson with OG&E said the city should focus on low cost and no cost improvements that will bring down its energy consumption before looking at solar power. He stated the cost for the necessary equipment to provide solar power for the city’s needs would be less once energy consumption was lowered.

However, Director Lavon Morton brought up that the city needed to get busy if they want to generate solar power because of the Sept. 30, 2024, deadline to start a solar project and be eligible for the one-to-one net-metering policy, where customers who generate electricity, usually with solar arrays, get credited at the full retail rate for any excess power they generate instead of the wholesale rate. Flint Richter and Ellison Forte with Entegrity Partners said the city would only need to have started a feasibility study on generating its own solar power by that date. They said a feasibility study would cost between $35,000 to $80,000 depending on what was needed.

Fort Smith citizens with the Citizens Climate Lobby addressed the board of directors, stating that it is time to start looking at a city-generated solar power option.

“I’ve never experienced an electricity rate decrease in my life, and I don’t expect to ever see one. Solar has come of age. Time is of the essence,” said Chris McRay.

Richter and Forte said that to generate enough power for the city’s needs, it would probably need a five megawatt project, which would translate into a 30-acre solar farm. The farm would only need to be within 100 miles of where the energy would be used. City Administrator Carl Geffken said the landfill and the watershed around Lee Creek could be possible locations for the farm.

A 30-acre farm would take about 12 to 18 months to build and would cost around $6 million, Richter said. He said typically a farm could be financed with a solar service Agreement that would include a 25-year agreement with private investors who pay upfront costs. The client agrees to buy power from the solar farm from the investors, but there would be no cost to the city to build the array. It would cost the city zero dollars up front to build the array.