‘Solar City’ is a long shot but possible, experts say

Published 11:33 am Saturday, October 23, 2010

FRANKLIN—Councilman Greg McLemore’s proposal to turn Franklin into “America’s First Solar City” by outfitting every building in the city with electricity-generating solar panels may be a long shot, but it isn’t impossible, according to electric industry experts.

The biggest problem with solar power currently is providing electricity when the sun isn’t shining.

“You certainly could turn your town to solar, but the solar will not provide all the electricity at the times when you need it,” said Mary Doswell, the senior vice president for alternative energy solutions at Dominion Virginia Power.

While technology is improving, storing the excess energy generated during the daylight hours for use during dark hours is a concern.

“I’m aware of that issue,” McLemore said, stressing that the Solar City Initiative is a 10- to 15-year plan. “Technology is getting better.”

McLemore said becoming a solar city would be a draw and help create demand for “green” manufacturers and tourist attractions like a theme park or professional golf course, which would in turn create jobs.

Excess electricity, he said, could be sold to utilities.

“Creating tourism is as important as the solar generation,” he said. “The solar generation is for revenue, but the tourism portion is for jobs.”

He said he wouldn’t expect the City Council to endorse the plan without investigation and vetting with the citizens.

“I do not recommend that we undertake this goal unless we have done thorough research and evaluation,” McLemore said.

The city wouldn’t disconnect from the existing power grid, in case of emergencies.

“If somebody can step forward with another idea that can achieve the same long-range benefits, then I’m all for it,” he said. “We can scratch the Solar City concept.”

McLemore isn’t the only person envisioning a solar city. In southwestern Florida, development company Kitson & Partners is planning to build a solar city from the ground up. The city, Babcock Ranch, will eventually be home to about 50,000 people, said company spokeswoman Lisa Hall.

The first thing to be constructed in the city is a photovoltaic solar plant. The plant, along with rooftop solar panels, would “feed the grid” by producing more electricity than the city consumes, Hall said.

Babcock Ranch is positioning to become a hub for renewable and green energy companies. A solar-powered Franklin would likely have a similar draw, she said.

“They’ll go where they know they’re going to have a market for their product. It’s really the same thing we’re promoting down here,” Hall said. “There are a whole lot of places that are trying to compete for that positioning, and the ones that can jump in and move will seize those opportunities.”

Installing solar panels to power a home using between 600 and 800 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month could cost between $40,000 and $64,000, said Sean Ingles, a solar sales representative for Richmond-based Integrated Power Sources of Virginia.

Richard Good, president of Virginia Beach-based Solar Services, Inc., said renewable energy credits and tax credits have made solar power much more affordable in recent years.

“Four years ago, if somebody had asked me what the payback on a solar system was, I would’ve told them 40 years in Virginia,” he said. “Now I tell them less than 10. It’s not an instant, but it’s a good long-term investment.”

Buying the solar systems in bulk to outfit the entire city would push costs lower, McLemore said. Under the plan, city residents would pay for solar systems on their homes on a payment plan dictated by their average monthly electricity bills.

Ed Legge, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C., said there are “challenges” with the plan, but it would be “much more possible” in a city like Franklin, which owns its own electric company.

Recently, McLemore attended the Governor’s Conference on Energy in Richmond, where he said his plan was received well by state officials, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, and energy company representatives. He plans to give a report on the conference at Monday’s City Council meeting.

“The only way we can do this is with a commitment from the city,” McLemore said. “Without the city’s commitment, it’s just a dream.”