“Free” Solar Subsidy Comes Back to Bite Maplewood

Maplewood city officials hit the solar power jack pot back in 2010. After all, the solar panels installed on the community center roof were paid for with “free” money–a massive $310,000 subsidy from taxpayers and Xcel ratepayers.

“It seems silly not to take advantage of it,” Maplewood Mayor Will Rossbach said when the City Council approved the project in December 2010. “I think that’s certainly a risk worth taking.”

In fact, there was no risk for the St. Paul suburb to take. An American Experiment analysis of the ill-conceived green boondoggle in November put it this way.

Under the best case scenario, it would have taken 70 years for federal taxpayers and utility ratepayers to break even on their investment, based on the $4,428 in estimated electricity savings generated annually for the city.

Yet the novelty wore off long before the project could ever pay off, leading the city to remove the solar panels last fall in order to replace the community center roof. Easy come, easy go like the “free” grants that made it possible in the first place.

It cost the city the equivalent of three years’ worth of solar power savings from the project—about $13,000—to have a contractor break down the system in recent weeks. City officials estimate it would cost an additional $10,000 to $15,000 to have the panels reinstalled on the MCC roof.

While the solar generation system still works, it may never be plugged into the grid again, due to the reinstallation costs and its already outdated technology. A final decision will be made by spring.

“The technology has changed dramatically since 2011. They’re not even using those systems anymore,” said DuWayne Konewko, Maplewood Environmental and Economic Development Director. “They’re three or four steps ahead of that now. Way back then there was more money from the feds and the state. Most of that is drying up or has dried up.”

But now it turns out that Maplewood had skin in the game all along without realizing it. The Pioneer Press reports that the fine print in a grant agreement with Xcel Energy requires the city to operate the solar system for two more decades–or else pay a penalty of $100,000 or more.

Options were still being discussed when city staff found the agreement with Xcel that required the city to use the panels for at least 20 years.

“We may have reinstalled them anyway as a city, but (the agreement) kind of obviously pushed that to the forefront,” Konewko said.

Reinstallation will cost $7,500 — significantly less than anticipated — and the panels will save the city about $2,500 to $3,000 per year in generated power.

“There is still some benefit, so we want to capitalize on that,” Konewko said.

Ironically, the outdated solar panels going back up at the Maplewood Community Center will generate more savings for the city simply by being operational–$100,000–than the comparable trickle in energy savings over the next 20 years. Unless the community center needs a new roof before then.