City postpones volunteer installation of solar panels on fire station over safety and financial finalization

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 5:55pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

The city of Ann Arbor, in partnership with the University of Michigan’s Students for Clean Energy group, are in the process of planning a volunteer-led installation of solar panels on Ann Arbor’s Fire Station Six. The installation, previously scheduled for May 27, has been tentatively pushed back to mid-June or July.

Engineering senior Grant Dukus, director of research and development for Students for Clean Energy, said the project team is working through the “nitty-gritty details” and anticipates the installation will be very soon.

Dukus said Students for Clean Energy turned to Ann Arbor with the idea for the installation, having experienced trouble getting the University to commit to a similar project.

“We found that it is very tough for these projects to get done in a timely manner on campus just because of all of the hoops you have to jump through,” Dukus said.

Missy Stults, sustainability and innovations manager for the city of Ann Arbor, said the city is working with its legal department to confirm safety precautions and financial considerations of the installation. Stults said these finalizations should take time.

“I’m not so focused on the actual installation date as I am on making it right, and we can replicate it, because that’s the most important thing,” Stults said. “So, if we do this really well, and people are comfortable with it, it means the next one will be faster.”

Stults said there was a large learning curve with the fire station solar installation because it is the first project of its kind undertaken by the new Department of Sustainability, which is only about 10 months old. Housed by the city administrator’s office — the executive office of the city — Stults said the Department of Sustainability’s existence proves Ann Arbor’s commitment to environmentalism.

“What’s really significant about the creation of the office is that it really formalized and drew attention to the importance of the priority the city has around sustainability,” Stults said.

LSA senior Taylor Lind, research and development team chair for Students for Clean Energy, said she believes Ann Arbor does an exceptional job of encouraging sustainable practices.

“They have a fairly thorough climate action plan in process, and I believe that they are going through a lot of different planning to meet those goals. So, I think they are definitely in the right place and have a lot more progress made than other cities in the state, and I’d say even in the country,” Lind said.

Because of the city’s enthusiasm, Stults is able to collaborate with groups like Students for Clean Energy on projects like the solar installation.

Stults said when Students for Clean Energy contacted her, the city had already been attempting to transition fire station six into net-zero energy efficiency, meaning the building would produce all of the energy it uses. This requires energy efficiency and the production of energy through a renewable source.

Stults said fire chief Mike Kennedy was supportive of the idea, but she and him were unsure of how the transition process would work without disrupting the day-to-day operations of the station.

“He was definitely supportive, but, like many folks, if this isn’t what you do, that feels overwhelming to try to figure out how and what does (net-zero energy) even mean,” Stults said. “He’s a life-saving individual who’s really thinking about emergency preparedness, and so the idea of a net-zero energy fire station sounded great, but in practice, what does it look like?”

Stults said the solar installation was a perfect way to begin moving fire station six toward energy efficiency and renewable energy production.

“Grant Dukus and Taylor Lind just came into my office and said, ‘What’s possible? Would the city ever partner with us to do something?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’” Stults said.

The project was made even easier by Students for Clean Energy volunteering to prepare and perform the installation themselves. Dukus said this reduced the cost of the project and provided real world experience to the club’s members.

“Getting firsthand experience actually installing and wiring in a solar installation is incredibly valuable experience that employers in the field are going to be looking for our students,” Dukus said.

The cost of the project to Ann Arbor was also reduced by a federal initiative called a “Solar Power Purchase Agreement.” Dukus explained power purchase agreements are 15 to 20 year contracts in which non-taxpaying entities, such as a local government, can obtain solar energy installations from a third-party developer for no upfront cost. In exchange, they agree to pay a reduced fee for energy to the developer who is then able to capitalize on the 30 percent tax rebate offered to champions of solar projects.

“(Power purchase agreements) are probably the best vehicle for large institutions —even small institutions — I guess just any institution, in general — to make these kind of investments in renewable energy when the upfront capital isn’t there,” Dukus said. “Power purchase agreements allow, basically, cities and schools to monetize the tax credits through a third-party developer.”

Despite the volunteer framework and power purchase agreement, the project still involves costs to the city. Students for Clean Energy set up a crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise $10,000. They donations currently sum to just under $3,300.

Dukus and Stults both said the $10,000 goal was pretty arbitrary. Stults said Ann Arbor would appreciate continued donations, but the city is financially able to move forward with the project anyway.

“We have resources in our city budget to help cover whatever wasn’t fundraised,” Stults said. “It would be great if people want to continue contributing. It will just mean more resources we could put toward another installation at the city, but this was something, when the students came to us, we knew we were going to double down on.”

Dukus said he hopes this project is able to “lead by example” and encourage others to have confidence in what can be accomplished in terms of sustainability on just a local scale.

“This is really important work, and there is a really strong moral imperative for us to be doing this, to be doing this kind of work, and for others to also be getting involved and taking action, whatever that may be,” Dukus said.

Lind said this project will continue to have an impact on the city, saving the government money in energy costs and incrementally moving the fire station closer to its goal of net-zero energy.

“I am honestly really excited and proud of the work that we’ve been able to accomplish thus far, and I’m only more eager to see what it looks like,” Lind said.