Atwater solar facility unveiled

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comNovember 1, 2012 

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MARCI STENBERG/mstenberg@mercedsunstar.com Atwater wastewater treatment plant on South Bert Crane Road in Atwater.

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

— The switch is flipped on Atwater's new solar array, and clean, cheap energy will soon start pumping into the city's new wastewater treatment plant to offset some of its power costs.

The 1.1-megawatt solar project, which broke ground in July, was finished last week and is expected to significantly reduce energy costs at the city's new treatment plant that became operational in June.

The new plant will consume twice as much energy as the old one because it uses an ultraviolet purification system aimed at meeting stricter water standards.

For the past few years, Councilman Jeff Rivero has been pushing for solar panels at the site to help reduce the cost. He said he's excited about the setup being operational and added that the solar energy will save the city about $1.5 million over the next 20 years.

"It took a while to get the ball rolling, and I won't lie, it's a beautiful sight," he said, describing the endeavor as a "team effort."

Siemens Industry built and will operate the solar panels on the city land. The company will then sell cheap energy to Atwater as part of a power-purchase agreement.

The city paid about $45,000 in consulting costs to help the project along, but officials describe it as money well-spent.

Over the next six years, the city expects to get about $215,000 from the state through its California Solar Initiative, a program that offers rebates to organizations that invest in solar.

Rivero said the setup is beneficial for all parties because it helps Pacific Gas & Electric Co. meet its renewable energy requirements, Siemens gets to use city land to generate solar energy, and Atwater gets cheap power and other benefits from the venture.

"It's a win-win for everybody," he said.

The wastewater plant's initial energy bills total about $60,000 a month, and the arrangement with Siemens will save the city about $5,000 a month, said Atwater's Public Works Director Dave Church during July's groundbreaking.

Siemens, which invested about $4 million in the community with the development of the solar site, will clean and maintain the solar panels throughout the 20-year contract with the city, Rivero said.

Mayor Joan Faul credited Rivero for his work on the project as well as Siemens for its efforts.

Faul said with a tight budget, it's crucial for the city to look into all cost-saving opportunities.

"That is a wonderful accomplishment for the city of Atwater," she said. "It'll really help us out."

With the solar energy trend growing in the Central Valley, both Faul and Rivero mentioned that they'd like to see solar options implemented in other areas of the city.

"We're one of the leaders in this," Rivero said. "To tell you the truth, I hope we're not done."

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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