MFPD board OKs pact with company to install solar panels at firehouses

District’s savings over 20-year period will range from $135,000 to $380,000

By Mike Anthony

An agreement with a company that will install solar panels on all seven of the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s engine houses was approved last week by the Board of Directors.

Board members voted unanimously Oct. 16 to approve the 20-year lease agreement with Brightergy, of Webster Groves.

Under the agreement, 25-kilowatt solar panels will be installed on the roofs of the district’s seven engine houses at no out-of-pocket cost to Mehlville.

Over the 20-year lease, the fire district could realize more than $379,000 in energy savings, according to Brightergy.

Under the lease agreement, the fire district will pay $1,190 per month to equip the district’s seven firehouses with solar panels — a total of $14,280 per year.

Over the 20-year period, Brightergy projects total energy savings of $665,012. After lease payments totaling $285,600 over 20 years, the fire district’s savings will total $379,412, according to Brightergy’s projections.

District officials, however, are more conservative in their estimate of energy savings over the 20 years.

MFPD Chief Financial Officer Brian Bond said, “The initial forecast that we received showed that over a 20-year period the cumulative savings at all seven locations would be somewhere around $380,000. That’s based upon 5-percent utility escalator costs … Obviously, nobody can predict what’s going to happen with the cost of electricity, but even if the cost never increases, if it just stays the same, the total savings over 20 years would be around $135,000.

“So the actual savings 20 years from now will probably be somewhere between $135,000 and $380,000. It’s difficult to pinpoint what the actual point would be because we don’t actually know what’s going to happen with the cost (of electricity), but there’s definitely going to be some savings. And I think it does send a good message to the community that we are looking at opportunities to cut costs, as well as trying to be more energy efficient and take a greener approach here …”

Chief Brian Hendricks said, “… I agree. I think as good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, I think it’s not only the right thing to do, but it shows that we’re doing anything and everything we can to not only take the district in more of a green direction, which we are with our apparatuses, as well as now this …

“I would definitely recommend that we move forward with the project …,” he added.

Bond earlier told the board he had spoken with four references provided by Brightergy.

“We did contact four of the references that were provided to us from Brightergy. We asked them questions pertaining to if they encountered any problems with the installation process, and, if so, were they resolved in a positive manner? Everyone said everything went well with the installation process. We asked about the post-installation interaction with Brightergy and everybody said they were very pleased …,” he said.

“We also inquired about if they were going to do it over, knowing everything they know now, would they still enter into a lease with Brightergy, and all four of the references said yes, they would,” Bond added. “So they were all very pleased … Two of the four said they believe their savings have exceeded what was originally provided to them in the forecast. One of them is relatively new and doesn’t have any savings information and the other one, they had not completed any analysis yet …”

A representative of Brightergy, Patrick Attwater, presented the proposal to the Board of Directors at its Oct. 2 meeting, noting that many of his company’s clients are fire protection and ambulance districts.

“It’s kind of been a niche that we’ve gone after to try to educate because you guys are members of the community, very close members of the community, so people really tend to appreciate when you make a move toward solar energy, which is away from coal or some of the more-polluting fuels,” he said. “Also, you guys typically have very good roofs for these types of installations and you’re going to be around for a long time. So those are all things that kind of play into why we’re focusing on this niche.”

As for the equipment itself, Attwater said, “We’re creating DC power on the roof. It’s going to go down to inverters. That inverter is going to convert it into AC power and then we’re going to tap it back into the electrical so the building will actually use the power from the panels first, and then pull from Ameren when it needs extra power.

“If we overproduce, we’ll send it back to Ameren and you’ll get a full retail credit. So we no longer need batteries … The equipment has no moving parts, other than a cooling fan in the back of the inverter. So there’s little to no maintenance, but as part of our lease agreement, we handle all maintenance and service for the equipment, including any warranty issues that may happen with the equipment.”

The solar panels have a 25-year warranty and the inverters have a 10-year warranty, he said, adding, “But as long as you’re under the lease agreement, we cover any replacement, even if they’re out of warranty.”

As an example of the savings, Attwater estimated the district’s No. 5 house on Mueller Road in Green Park would save $800 with the solar system for the first year of the lease.

Those savings would increase each year, he said, to more than $4,600 by year 20 of the lease, while the cumulative savings for the No. 5 house would total nearly $49,000 over 20 years.

“The savings go up because we’re estimating that utility prices are going to go up 5 percent a year. The national average is 6 (percent). Ameren, the last 10 years has been 10 (percent),” he said. “… We have some of the cheapest power in the county. That’s not going to be true for much longer. We basically didn’t invest in our infrastructure for 20 years, so now they’re making up for that. We’re having to face new regulations. New power plants are going to be put online and old ones are being decommissioned, so 8 (percent) to 12 percent a year is going to be pretty standard for at least the next 10 years …”

At the end of the 20-year lease, Attwater said the fire district has “the option to either buy the system for fair market value — and we have to say fair market value, we can’t put a buyout amount on it because it’s an operating lease. You can continue with a new lease or have the system removed at no cost, and we have to replace the roof just as we found it …”