ATWATER -- City officials broke ground Wednesday on a solar panel site that's expected to significantly reduce energy costs on the largest and most expensive project the city's ever undertaken.
Atwater's new wastewater treatment plant became operational last month and is expected to eat up about twice as much energy as the old plant because of the ultraviolet purification system used to meet stricter drinking water standards.
Councilman Jeff Rivero, who's been lobbying for a solar energy site for four years to offset that cost, expects the setup to save the city about $1.5 million over the next 20 years.
Siemens Industry will build and operate the solar panels on city land, and will then sell cheap energy back to Atwater as part of a power purchase agreement. More solar panels can be added later if energy demands increase.
Rivero expects the solar field to be completed in October.
The city spent about $45,000 in consulting costs on the solar project, but Rivero thinks the expenditure is worth the reward, especially because the city's discounted energy rate will be locked in place for 20 years.
"Even if electricity doubled, we're still locked into our price," he said.
The city also will receive money from renewable energy credits and about $300,000 from the state through its California Solar Initiative, a program that offers rebates to organizations that invest in solar technology, Rivero said.
"Most of you have heard some towns are filing bankruptcy," he said before Wednesday's groundbreaking. "The city of Atwater is proactive in trying to think outside the box and save as much money as possible."
Rivero said the move is a step in the right direction.
"This is pretty much like telling everybody 'My wife's pregnant,' " Rivero said. "Hopefully in October when we have the (switch-throwing), the baby will be born and the city will start saving money."
Jesse Thompson, zone manager for Siemens, said the project shows what can happen when the public and private sectors team up.
"And I think that what we have here today is very solid public-private partnership," he said, adding that other cities have expressed interest in solar energy and he expects Atwater's solar project to be a trend-setter in the Central Valley.
Lisa Reddinger, a business development manager for Siemens, said that beyond the consulting and legal costs, there was no upfront cost to Atwater for the project.
There's also no risk, she said, noting that there is a production guarantee between the two entities to ensure savings to the city.
Dave Church, public works director for Atwater, said initially that the wastewater treatment plant's energy bills could total about $60,000 a month. The arrangement with Siemens will save the city about $5,000 a month.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.