KENDALLVILLE — Will Kendallville join the ranks of those generating their own solar energy?

City officials are hosting a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Community Learning Center to discuss a proposal for a 1.55-megawatt solar field at the former McCray Refrigerator factory site off Wayne Street.

The meeting will be held in the auditorium with room to practice social distancing and with available overflow space, if needed.

The potential solar field is estimated to cost about $2.35 million, with the city proposing a short-term bond in order to fund the project.

A solar field has been one of the ideas floated by Kendallville since the long-abandoned McCray factory caught fire and burnt on June 4, 2018. The city had previously taken ownership of the property with the intention to tear down the industrial site eyesore before fire ravaged it in an early morning blaze.

It took approximately the next six months to clear the site of debris, leaving the city with the vacant 11-acres just north of downtown and one block west Main Street.

Mayor Suzanne Handshoe first floated the idea of a solar field for the McCray site during her 2019 State of the City address.

“We have a vision for re-purposing this site to a pocket park, a butterfly garden, and the possibility of a solar field, as well as additional land for the water pollution control facility’s future growth,” Handshoe said at that time.

A year and a half went by, with the McCray site sitting dormant and nothing much happening publicly as the city focused on other priorities.

In late July 2020, after the city opted to renew a contract to keep fencing around the site, Handshoe said nothing had been finalized for the McCray site, but at the time had said a solar field was looking “cost-prohibitive.”

But the situation has changed since then as the city has researched more of the financing and also undergone efforts to clean up the site itself instead of paying someone to do it.

“Figuring out the financing and us doing a lot of the preparation work in house — we’re breaking up a lot of that concrete and moving it and that’s helping with the whole thing — and they’ve given us a presentation with some different numbers with the financing in how we could make it work,” Handshoe said.

The city is now pricing solar options to help shave cost off running the next-door wastewater treatment plant, a project that would need to be in place before July 2022 in order to take advantage of a state “net metering” program through 2032.

Net metering is a system in which a user is given credits to their bills if their solar panels add more energy to the electrical grid than they’re utilizing, allowing them to draw down on those credits in the future overnight or on days when they’re using more electric than they’re producing.

After 2032, the city would receive reimbursement at the wholesale electric rate times 1.25.

The proposed solar field would take up most of the 11-acre McCray site, stretching from the west end of the property all the way to Mill Street.

A small area on the north side of the lot on Wayne Street are planned for a small pocket park serving the nearby neighborhood, with another lot reserved as a “proposed building site.”

The solar field would include 1,174 tracking panels — the small, reflective blue-colored glass that sits on the arrays — and 2,702 fixed panels for a total power generation of approximately 1.55 megawatts.

The power generated by the solar field would help to reduce annual operating costs at the wastewater plant by a significant margin.

Currently the city is spending about $216,500 per year on electricity at the plant, but the expectation is that a solar field could reduce that by about 82% to around $38,000 per year.

The city estimates it could generate approximate $6.7 million in savings over the first 30 years of use at the solar field.

The project is expected to cost about $2.35 million to build, and would require a bond amount of about $2.43 million.

The city is looking at a six-year loan that would have low payments the first five years with a balloon payment of about $2.1 million due in 2026 after the field is installed and, hopefully, already generating savings.

The city estimates the bond payments could be covered by current revenues from the sewage works over that time frame, meaning the project shouldn’t require any property tax hikes or sewage rate increases.

It’s unclear whether the drop in annual utility costs would result in a potential drop in user sewage rates in the future. Electricity is only one component of the wastewater department’s annual budget, but the reduction in utility costs could at least stave off future rate increases for a time as other expenses rise year-to-year, Handshoe said.

The Kendallville project would put the city in a league with other local solar projects that have taken root in recent years.

Reliable Tool and Machine on Ohio Street in Kendallville installed a 1.2-megawatt solar field in fall 2017, Noble REMC dedicated its 1-megawatt field on S.R. 3 near Laotto in June 2019 and the site of Thursday’s information meeting, the Community Learning Center, has installed solar panels on top of the roof of its building to help reduce energy costs at the more than 200,000-square-foot former East Noble Middle School building.

Residents have suggested a variety of recreational uses for the site including a splash pad, skate park or festival space, but Handshoe said through an agreement with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, there are certain types of developments that aren’t allowed due to the location’s past as a heavy industry site.

A solar field would not cause the kind of site disturbance that would raise any issues and Handshoe said it would be a way to take what’s been somewhat of a brownfield site and turn it into a space to promote green energy.

“We thought a safe energy producing place might be a win-win,” she said.

The informational meeting at the CLC will begin at 6 p.m. The city won’t be able to broadcast the event live, but Handshoe said it may be recorded for people to view later if they’re unable or wary about attending.

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