Friday, September 26, 2014

Major solar project proposed for valley

Local company awaits lease approval from Idaho State Lands Board

Express Staff Writer

A major solar project is planned for five separate parcels of state land in Ohio Gulch, north of Hailey.
Courtesy graphic

     Sagebrush Solar, a Ketchum-based alternative energy company, has applied for a 50-year lease with the Idaho Department of Lands to build a 50-acre solar photovoltaic project on state land in Ohio Gulch in the Wood River Valley.

     The project would be the first of its kind approved on state endowment lands in Idaho.

     The first phase of the project would install 3,608 solar panels on six acres, producing up to 1.1 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply power to 160 homes. The total installed cost of the project would be $2,026,150, and perhaps be funded by numerous small-scale local investors.   

     Billy Mann, the owner of Sagebrush Solar, said the company has completed 60 solar projects in the valley. Mann is a member of the Ketchum Energy Advisory Committee, a group formed to address energy issues and work toward greater sustainability, energy independence and reduction of the city’s carbon footprint. The committee meets with the Wood River Renewable Energy Working Group. The partnership was formed earlier this year by Idaho Power Co.

     Mann said the proposed project would take advantage of decreasing costs for solar energy production, which has created new financial incentives for solar entrepreneurs.

     “This isn’t just about saving the planet anymore. It’s about saving money,” Mann said.

     He has proposed funding the project by selling 3,608 shares in amounts equal to the cost of individual solar panels, about $562 each.

     “To fund our facility we’re particularly interested in community-owned solar,” Mann wrote in his proposal to the Idaho Department of Lands. “Instead of installing systems individually on homes at $6 per watt, we can install the same number of panels at $2 per watt.”

     The project has received support from Aimee Christensen, a member of the Ketchum Energy Advisory Committee and the founder of Christensen Global Strategies, which collaborates with industries, governments and organizations worldwide on energy issues.

     “Community solar projects are very popular now,” Christensen said. “They are happening all over the country. They are great for people who live in apartments who are unable to build solar systems of their own.”

     Christensen said they can instead buy the same number of solar panels                that they would need for their power needs at a community solar power facility, and be paid back in monthly sales of energy to the power grid.

     Under the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, power companies must buy power at a state commission-approved rate from qualifying small power production facilities, as well as cogeneration facilities. Mann said a 25-year power purchase agreement would have to be established with Idaho Power before going into operation.

     Idaho Power recently signed contracts with two Idaho developers for solar projects—a 40-megawatt plant between Kuna and Boise as well as an 80-megawatt plant near Mountain Home that could generate 120 megawatts to service more than 80,000 homes. Those projects are on private property.

     Mann’s project is planned for Idaho state endowment lands, which are managed to provide funding for numerous schools, hospitals and correctional facilities. Idaho law mandates that the lands will be managed to secure the maximum long-term financial return.

     “While there is no specific date to finalize the lease, the Idaho Department of Lands is very interested in working with the applicant to ensure a successful outcome for all parties as soon as possible,” said department Public Information Officer Emily Callihan. “We will conduct due diligence on the proposal and analyze market conditions in order to negotiate the terms of the lease along with rental structure and rates.”

Mann said he hopes the lease terms will be satisfactory enough to move forward this winter with a detailed business plan to present to investors. He said construction on the first phase of the project could begin in the spring.

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