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Salt Palace to house largest solar-power installation in country

Published: 09/02/2010
By John Daley, KSL News - One of Utah's biggest public buildings will soon have a new distinction as a showcase for renewable energy.

The Salt Palace Convention Center will soon be home to what would be, if built today, the largest solar-power installation of its kind in the nation.

The project is the brainchild of an unusual public-private partnership. Bella Energy will build the solar array and NexGen Energy will own, operate and maintain the system. Salt Lake County will then buy energy from NexGen at the same fixed rate it would have paid Rocky Mountain Power.

Salt Lake City has roughly 300 sunny days a year with a vast supply of currently unused rays zapping rooftops, like the large space atop the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Wednesday, an announcement aimed at changing that.

"We expect that this project will be the largest rooftop solar in the entire United States," said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

"This project will put Utah at the forefront of the national on-site solar development world," said Ted Rose, vice president of NexGen Energy.

Lights in the Salt Palace garage are currently powered by a 20 kilowatt-array on the building's roof. The new project will dwarf that, covering the entire 600,000-square-foot building with a $10 million system, producing up to 2.6 megawatts -- a quarter of the annual electrical needs of the convention center, enough to power 261 homes a year.

"This solar installation will start moving solar development in Utah and it will put Utah on the map," said Utah Clean Energy Executive Director Sarah Wright.

The project is a public-private partnership, using a power purchase agreement financing model OK'd with new legislation last year.

The complex financing is funded in part by federal tax credits, grants and subsidized bonds through the stimulus -- about $5.7 million in federal money, all told, with no additional energy costs to county taxpayers.

"This project will not cost a dime because we have a private company coming in and doing the installation for us, and then we'll pay our utility bills to them," Corroon said.

In seven years, the county will have the option to buy the system for $800,000.

"What's innovative is its size, and it's a really large kickoff project for a state. It's very unusual to start a solar industry with one big project," said Bella Energy CEO James Welch.

There are still challenges to overcome before this project becomes a reality, including financing and coordinating with Rocky Mountain Power's grid.

"There's regulatory hurdles, there's financing hurdles," Welch said. "You've got to get the numbers to work. You need banks to finance the project."

"We also learn as an operating company and an engineering company how to integrate this large a generation source into our electric network," said Rich Walie, president of Rocky Mountain Power.

This one project alone will double solar capacity in Utah. The plan is to install 11,319 solar panels in all. Installation is expected to start at the end of the year and be completed sometime next year.

The solar modules will generate more than 3,330,000 kilowatt hours of electricity every year, 25% of the Convention Center's annual consumption or enough to power more than 350 homes in Utah.


Federal Subsidies
The $10 million solar energy system is subsidized by $5.7 million in federal money:

* $3 million in tax credits
* $1.5 million in tax write-offs for depreciation
* $1.2 million in federal grant