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Kansas City plans to install solar panels on city buildings

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 | 8:40 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Turning toward the sun, Kansas City has signed a deal to install solar panels and equipment on 80 city buildings to meet part of its demand for electricity.

Brightergy, a Kansas City solar-power installer, and Kansas City Power & Light will team up on the project, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Police and fire department facilities and most of the city's community centers are some of the buildings that will get solar power.

"Kansas City will very likely be one of the leading cities in the country in the number of buildings with solar electricity," said Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer for the city.

The solar units on the 80 buildings could supply all the power needed for 200 homes. Some city governments, such as San Francisco's, use more of the renewable energy, but it comes from solar energy farms instead of units on individual buildings.

In the Midwest and other regions that have been slow to adopt solar energy, Kansas City's move is ambitious. The city government of Columbia, a leader in the region in its use of solar energy, has about one-sixth of the capacity Kansas City plans to install.

The solar units to be installed in Kansas City will supply 2.5 percent of each building's demand, a typical amount for the Midwest. That might not seem like much, but when the cost of leasing the solar panels is factored in, the city will save $40,000 in the first year. The annual savings are expected to increase in the future.

"This is a net benefit to every taxpayer in Kansas City," said Danny Rotert, spokesman for Mayor Sly James.

The spread of solar energy in the Midwest has been slowed by somewhat low electricity rates from public utilities, making solar power relatively more expensive. The average rate for residential electricity in Missouri is about 9 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with about 15 cents in California, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But the math used to justify the economics of solar energy has changed, in part because the cost of solar panels has fallen by more than half. In Missouri, there is also a $2 rebate for each watt of capacity installed, plus other federal incentives. The help from the state will begin to phase out in 2014, and the federal incentives will start phasing out in 2016, but for now the assistance is covering the large majority of the cost.

Adam Blake, CEO of Brightergy, said the payback for solar energy is now outrageously good, and if the price of solar panels continues to decline, the panels should still be economical even when the incentives are gone.

"The idea is we won't need the credits," he said.

His company has been leasing solar energy units to businesses in the Kansas City area, and Brightergy and KCP&L will lease the units they install to the city. The leases are for 20 years, with the price for the electricity fixed for the duration.

KCP&L gets about 10 percent of the power it sells from wind energy generated on large wind farms in southwest Kansas. But wind speeds aren't high enough to justify installing wind turbines in the Kansas City area.

That's not a problem with solar, which also has the advantage of typically producing more on hot summer days when electricity is most needed.

"The beautiful thing about solar is it's generated right where it's needed," said Chuck Caisley, a spokesman for KCP&L.

Six companies submitted bids to install the city's solar units. The city, which is KCP&L's largest customer with a $20 million electric bill annually, already has three small solar units. City Hall has a solar water heater but won't get any of the new units that produce electricity because there isn't enough room on the roof.

The building housing the Kansas City Aviation Department near Kansas City International Airport is expected to have solar panels, but the airport's terminals are not on the list.


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