Solar panels to power 145 homes coming to Naperville

Naperville has been chosen as one of four municipalities across the state to receive a solar-power project through a nonprofit energy organization that powers 32 Illinois communities.

Construction is set to begin this summer on a 1-megawatt solar array of 3,500 panels on six acres at the city's Springbrook Water Reclamation Center, 3712 Plainfield-Naperville Road. The panels are expected to produce 1.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year - enough to power 145 homes.

"It's awesome for our community," Mayor Steve Chirico said. "It's good for our environment and a great investment. It makes financial sense for us. It also improves our reliability, our electrical sustainability."

The Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, a nonprofit co-op from which the city has received all its energy since entering into a contract June 1, 2011, is taking the lead on the project after choosing Naperville from among its member municipalities, said Staci Wilson, director of government affairs.

"Naperville has a commitment to sustainability and presented a well-vetted proposal that demonstrated the commitment as well as the support of Mayor Chirico and the city council," Wilson said.

Solar projects also are set to be built in Altamont and Rock Falls, as well as one more community, Wilson said.

Each array will be built at no direct cost to the city. The municipal electric agency is seeking pitches from developers who will build the panels in exchange for a contract to sell back the power produced, Wilson said.

Electricity generated will return to the grid to be used in Naperville, providing "year-round environmental benefits," Wilson said.

"Power generated by the solar panels peaks at about the same time as Naperville's summer load," Wilson said. "This offsets higher-cost peak generation."

The panels also will help explain solar energy.

"It will be great for education," Chirico said, "for students to be able to go there and look at the data and understand how it works and understand renewable energy."

The construction of solar panels in Naperville and three other communities follows two solar projects the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency already launched.

One solar site in St. Charles came online Sept. 1, 2017, following the first such array, which began operations Dec. 13, 2016 in Rantoul near Champaign.

"We're excited about it. It'll be nice to have one of their projects here," said Mark Curran, Naperville's electric utility director. "A lot of our customers are very interested in renewables."

The solar projects are one way the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency is working to diversify its power sources, Curran said, after construction delays and cost overruns at one of its main sources - a southern Illinois coal plant - caused it to raise rates.

Naperville passed along rate increases to customers between 2014 and 2018, as the electric utility took out a $13.2 million loan from the water utility to cover costs. Curran said his utility paid back the water loan at the end of 2018 and now has approved rate decreases of 2 percent each year for 2019, 2020 and 2021 as power prices have stabilized.

Curran said the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency now receives 5 percent of its power from wind energy and is working on another wind project that could increase the proportion to 10 percent.

Back at home, the city's contract with the agency, which lasts until September 2035, allows Naperville to add up to 100 kilowatts of its own solar power production. Curran said the city is considering whether building roofs, such as the top of the sprawling public works facility on Fort Hill Drive, could be the site of future solar panels.

"We will continue to look at opportunities down the road," he said, "for more renewable projects."

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