Marquette will solar power sewer plant

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After six months of discussion, the city of Marquette is moving forward with a $300,000 project to solar power the city’s sewer plant. The ground arrays will be located on DOT hillside property between U.S. Highway 18 and the sewer plant. The site caused some debate because it’s next to the “Welcome to Marquette” sign, and some of the panels will be visible from the roadway.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

After six months of discussion, the city of Marquette is moving forward with a $300,000 project to solar power the city’s sewer plant.

While the council has been supportive of the project, the biggest hold-up was concern over the location of the ground arrays, which will be built into Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) hillside property between U.S. Highway 18 and the sewer plant. That’s also right next to the “Welcome to Marquette” sign that greets visitors coming into town from the west.

“We all agree solar is for the best, but it’s a catch-22,” said councilwoman Cindy Halvorson at the city’s April 14 regular meeting. “We’re known as an old river town, and it’s so beautiful. My concern is, as you’re coming down the hill, right beside where it says ‘Welcome to Marquette,’ you’re going to see all the solar. Your first impression is a lasting impression.”

Councilman John Ries has disagreed with the location from the start, stating it will be detrimental to the view. The panels will be about 11 feet off the ground, and he asked at a previous meeting, “Has anyone else driven up to the site and looked at what an 11-foot wall on the top of that hillside on the edge of town is going to look like? The Marquette sign is about eight feet in the air.”

Ries advocated moving the arrays down the hillside, but mayor Steve Weipert said the property is too rocky for excavation at that point.

The other potential location was a strip of property between the sewer plant and Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, which was once the proposed site of a campground. 

Installation would be easier there, cutting the cost by over $10,000, said Kent Kraus, solar energy consultant with Dubuque-based Eagle Point Solar, who is working with the city on the project.

However, it would take away some of the city’s prime real estate for 40 years, which is the projected life of the solar system.

“The positive of putting it down there is you could incorporate it with educational purposes [at the Wetlands Centre]. You could have a talking point on solar,” said councilman Ryan Young. “But after looking at that campground area, and seeing it mapped out down there, I hate to lose that much real estate to it. I like using the DOT space because it’s not our land.”

City clerk Bonnie Basemann said the DOT has already given verbal approval for use of the hillside property, with no indication of a fee. Eagle Point Solar developed the plans based on DOT specifications.

After the campground was deemed unfeasible, Halvorson wondered if any other future plans have been discussed for the site.

“I agree with you with the land by the Wetlands Centre,” she said, “but I’d like to know how it’s going to be utilized. We really don’t know.”

This would be a good time to start brainstorming ideas, said councilman Dave Schneider.

“I think that’s something we’ve got to look at, what we could do up there,” he stated. “We’ve been using that whole area for environmental, so maybe you go in there with a community garden temporarily before you develop it.”

Schneider said the solar panels, wherever they are located, will be a positive move for Marquette.

“We’re trying to be forward thinking,” he shared. “We’re still trying to honor the past, but thinking of the future of the city.”

Ries said he also didn’t favor wasting city real estate, suggesting instead a multi-purpose installation—a solar pavilion with elevated panels that doubled as a roof.

“Then we would be forward thinking,” he remarked.

There was no estimate on how much modifying the project in that way would cost, however.

Either way, said mayor Weipert, something needs to be done. The sewer plant is currently running in the red, meaning the city must either cut operating expenses or raise rates. A 21 percent increase would allow Marquette to break even based on 2019 calculations, he previously noted.

The sewer plant project marks the city of Marquette’s fourth solar venture. Installations have already been completed at well number four in the Timber Ridge Subdivision, on the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre and on the city shop/police station, with discernible success.

According to Eagle Point Solar, the sewer plant system would offset 72 percent of the energy consumption at the site annually, saving an estimated $25,626 in electric bills in the first year alone. Over 25 years, annual utility savings are anticipated to average $42,169, for a total utility savings of $1,054,225.

There will also be a considerable environmental impact. Over the life of the system, 3,638 tons of carbon dioxide will be eliminated from Marquette’s footprint. That’s the equivalent of planting 84,765 trees, recycling 11,496 tons of waste, displacing CO2 emissions from the annual electric use of 412 homes and preventing 1,772.5 tons of coal from being burned.

“It’s not an easy choice, but it’s so hard to predict the future,” Weipert said. “We have the money now, and we don’t know if we’ll have the money in the future. If you’re going to invest in solar, you’re going to get a 10 or 11 percent return. You can leave that money sit in the bank and get under 2.”

In the end, Schneider, Young and Halvorson voted in favor of moving forward with the solar project on the DOT property. Ries voted “no.” Councilwoman Elizabeth Gilman was not in attendance.

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