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Its Day in the Sun: Greenville Plans to Power Every School and City Building with Solar Energy

For a small city that wants to power all of its municipal offices and school buildings with solar energy, it couldn't dream up a better name for itself: Greenville.

Civic leaders in this town of nearly 8,000 people northeast of Grand Rapids have rolled out an ambitious plan to install photovoltaic panels on just about all of the 35 city government and school buildings in Greenville as funding becomes available. The electricity generated by the solar panels would also help power street lighting, the waste water treatment plant and airport hangars.

"Everybody is pumped about this," says Greenville City Manager George Bosanic. "We're a large enough community to make a statement and a difference, but we're small enough to get it done and get it done right. We think many communities will take notice and say, 'We'd like to see you do it and we can follow.'"

The dream is to make Greenville an epicenter for solar energy, where visitors not only would experience the city's six square miles dotted with solar-powered buildings, but also would find two plants that manufacture the photovoltaic panels.

Small Steps, Giant Leap
Solar panels installed a few years ago at Greenville's airport terminal were only baby steps compared to the big leap now envisioned by city leaders. By summer's end, officials expect that panels being installed will generate enough kilowatt hours from the sun to supply about 10 percent of the electricity needed by the school district and city.

The cost to install solar panels on every city and school building originally was tagged at $36 million, city leaders say. But due to product discounts offered by the supplier and one of Greenville's newest employers, United Solar Ovonic LCC, the estimated cost has been whittled down to around $28 million, says Peter Haines, superintendent of Greenville Public Schools.

United Solar Ovonic opened its first Greenville plant in late 2007 and second plant in 2008 to manufacture photovoltaic laminates that convert sunlight directly into electricity. The UNI-SOLAR laminates are durable and flexible, making them easy to integrate into rooftop systems used for commercial, government, military, and education applications.

"If you were going to do something on a grand scale, this was the place," Haines says. The community is struggling with a stunningly dismal unemployment rate of 19.2 percent and desperately needs to reinvent itself with a "new economy" industry, he notes. "No one needs it more than we do."

City and school leaders are confident the alternative energy plan will eventually eliminate their annual electrical cost of about $370,000 for the school district and slightly over
$350,000 for the city.

Project Greenerville
To breath life into their new make-over dubbed "Greenerville," community leaders have been busy knocking on every door, bending any ear and applying for any incentive. So far, more than $2.5 million has been secured, mostly through bonds and state and federal grants. By summer's end, two school buildings and three more city buildings will boast solar panels on their roofs.

The Greenerville plan was hatched early last year when the school superintendent and city manager were discussing projects that could be funded by federal stimulus grants. Both thought solar panels on city hall and an elementary school were good ideas. Then they thought of asking United Solar Ovonic as a partner in the project.

Finally, the thought occurred to them to "shoot for the stars here" by making the city's community buildings a showcase for the use of solar power, Bosanic recalls.

Elected officials were receptive to the idea, but the city council and board of education members wondered where the funds would come from during this tough time of tight budgets. At the end of the day, however, project Greenerville gathered support.

"It's all about hope," says Haines. "We're not sitting back and waiting for someone else to shape this. We're not stuck in our past. We're hoping to model a future."

Going Solar
This summer, the school district will invest about $1.1 million for solar panels on parts of the roofs at Lincoln Heights Elementary School and Greenville High School, Haines says. About one-third of the $500,000 cost at the elementary school will be funded through a state grant from Energy Works Michigan, he says, while administrators expect to pay for the remaining expense through low or no-interest bonds.

Still to go "solar" will be the district's middle school, three remaining elementary schools and its central services building.

The city's efforts have landed a $59,483 federal stimulus grant awarded earlier this year to install solar panels on about two-third of the roof covering city hall, along with replacing some of the building's interior lighting with more energy efficient lighting and two computer servers. Cost of the balance of the project, about $25,000 will be covered by the city.

Another project targeted this year is the public safety building adjacent to city hall and the airport hangars. Estimated at almost $1 million, the city hopes to pay for that installation with low-interest bonds to be issued this year.

Next on tap is the installation $300,000 worth of solar panels at the city's waste water treatment plant when it undergoes a $2.7 million renovation primarily financed through a $1.89 million federal grant awarded last fall.

Meanwhile, the search continues for more "green" funds. Last spring, the school superintendent, city manager, USO's plant manager,  and a vice president from USO's parent company, Rochester Hills-based Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. were among those who testified before a state committee in hopes of identifying additional funding sources.

Gary DiDio, plant manager of Greenville's United Solar Ovonic plants that employ more than 300, is excited about the Greenerville program and eager to support it.

"We supported it right from the get-go," DiDio says. "I'm a big booster for PVs (photovoltaic energy). In Greenville, this is a compliment to us and it shows how progressive the city is. George and Pete have a lot of passion for the city."

DiDio declined to be specific about discounted figures offered to the city and school district for its product and engineering services, but he acknowledges the company was "aggressive" with its price cuts to promote solar energy in Michigan. "The other states have greater incentives which make these projects go a lot smoother and faster," he says.

The most frustrating aspect of the effort has been the degree of incentives and policies in place at the state level to encourage the switch, Haines and Bosanic says. "We can move (quickly) if funding is available and incentives are in place," Bosanic says. "It's not that complicated. What's complicated is our policies in Michigan. Other states have moved quicker than us. We're just starting. But I hope it goes quicker and quicker once we figure this out."

"It's frustrating to see a Michigan company (United Solar Ovonic) export 80 percent of its product to Europe when it could be used in the state," he says. "There's a huge market here in Michigan. As we begin to demonstrate that this is worthwhile, people will start paying more attention to this."

Efforts are underway to advance greener policies. Greenville's city and school district have already tapped into Consumers Energy's experimental kilowatt-buyback program. The utility has agreed to pay participants a premium rate for energy generated by solar power for 12 years. Once the panels are installed, the utility will buy back the solar-powered energy at 37.5 cents per kilowatt per hour, while the city and school district will pay the utility about 8 cents per hour, earning them both a profit to help pay off the panels.

After 12 years, "any energy we generate at that point is entirely free to the district," says Haines. The panels have a life expectancy of 25 years, with a payback expected in 10 years for the school and about 12 years for the city, Haines says.

The latest proposal introduced last year by a coalition of state leaders called ReEnergize Michigan would dramatically accelerate the state's move toward renewable energy and energy efficiency by pushing the renewable energy mandate up from 10 percent to 30 percent by 2025 and requiring utilities to continue paying premium rates for power generated by alternative renewable energy sources.

Sharon Hanks is innovations and jobs news editor at Rapid Growth Media.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Greenville City Manager George Bosanic and Greenville Public Schools Superintendent Peter Haines

George Bosanic

Peter Haines

Solar panels in place at the Greenville Airport

A section of roof slated for solar panels at Lincoln Heights Elementary School

Brian Kelly is a photographer, filmmaker and ice cream eater. You can follow his adventures on his mind-blowing blog or view a portfolio of fancy photographs here.

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