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Lewis County solar array powers up revenue to cover electric bills

The Lewis County solar array behind the Public Safety Building as see from Outer Stowe Street, Lowville. Julia Hopkins/Watertown Daily Times

LOWVILLE — Revenue from the Lewis County solar array has covered about 59% of the county’s electricity bill over the past 15 months, and this is just the beginning.

The county has received about $85,000 in credit for the energy pumped into the main power grid by the 2-megawatt array consisting of 7,939 panels and 67 inverters on 10 acres of county land behind the Public Safety Building off outer Stowe Street.

“The billing has been a nightmare, but it’s worth it,” said County Manager Ryan Piche as he explained how the system works, “It’s like all of the meters go clockwise but the one meter indicating how much energy is being produced goes counterclockwise.”

National Grid bills come to the county showing the full amount of electricity used and a credit is given for the amount of energy the solar array produces later.

Although that extra power is given in credits for future bills, County Treasurer Patricia O’Brien said, it’s still considered revenue for the county.

“We would be paying these power bills no matter what. It’s as if we pay the bill to Nat Grid in total and then they pay us for the power the solar array has produced. It isn’t really “saving” anything because we are actually using the power we are paying for.”

The actual payment, however, is in credits given for the power produced unless it is for power beyond what the county can use, which comes back monetarily.

The array’s builder and owner, Greenskies Renewable Energy based in Connecticut, is paid 7.9 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity used by the county, much less than the 12.3 cents the county was paying before the project went live.

While the ribbon cutting ceremony for the array was held in May 2018, the facility didn’t “really start producing until June,” said the county Planning Department Director Frank Pace earlier this year, so the amount of revenue the array will generate will increase over time.

“There is always a learning curve and adjustments with equipment to get the system running that happen in the first year of a project like this one, so in the long term, we will see an even more significant benefit,” Mr. Pace said.

The hospital is also tied into the array, paying the county for 25% of the credits earned from the solar facility for its electric bills, which are held separately from the rest of the county.

The solar array was constructed in 2017 and 2018, aided by a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority program.

Greenskies entered the project with the intention of selling low-cost power to the county for 20 years, saving the county about $3 million over that period.

The array was originally estimated to earn about $125,000 annually for the county based on a variable rate for the energy price. Because energy prices have varied over the past year, the actual number is less than the estimate despite the fact that the array is producing energy on target.

The array was expected to meet about half the electricity needs of the county, which it has achieved in the first year.

In the 2020 budget, Mrs. O’Brien said they planned conservatively for $60,000 in revenue from the solar array in case one of the many variables causes the amount of revenue brought in to be lower than the precedent set by this year.

“We don’t want to be on the other side of that number once it’s budgeted,” Mrs. O’Brien said.

A monitor located at the Lewis County Court house shows the power being generated by the solar farm in real time.

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