The city of Wauwatosa, Wis., began its first solar energy project years ago with a small solar ray atop its fire station. However, in the last three years, it has made leaps and bounds since that first project. Currently, the combined city hall and public library as well as the city garage house completed solar power projects, according to David Simpson, director of public works.
Wauwatosa’s first modern-day, major solar project was the city garage. Wanting to pursue a solar energy project but unable to get the necessary funding due to prolonged payback periods, the city was eager to apply for a widely advertised state grant program that became available in 2019. Wauwatosa received this renewable energy competitive incentive program grant for $102,230.86, allowing it to cut down the payback period and lower the city’s cost.
The payback period, or how many years it will take to break even, is estimated between 14 and 16 years. However, energy rates play a large role. If the rates are high, the city could decrease the payback period. If the energy rates become lower, it will take longer to break even on the solar projects.
At the July 2, 2019, meeting, the common council issued approval to accept the grant and enter into a contract with McKinstry for $584,273 for installation of solar panels on the roof of the city garage, which was constructed in late 2019.
A primary deciding factor in choosing the city buildings was both the size and age of the roof. For a solar project, the roof must be in good shape and have been replaced fairly recently “with a lot of life left in it,” Simpson stressed. The amount of energy the building uses was also considered.
When it came to choosing what type of solar system to put in on the building, the city issued a request for proposals and received between five and seven proposals for each project. When comparing the proposals, the city took into consideration the estimated size that was desired, the design, the materials that would be used, how many similar systems the company had installed and the warranties that were offered. City staff members then weighed the pros and cons of each proposal and took it to the common council with their recommendation. The common council then ultimately approved which proposal to proceed with, ensuring proper checks and balances so that the best system was chosen for the city.
So far, the city has seen promising results from their solar systems. They are producing just as much energy — or more — as officials initially estimated, and the city has reduced its energy bill by as much as was proposed. The solar projects are cut off of a 300-kilowatt system size that allows net metering. Compared to 2020, the city reduced purchased electricity by 726,753 kWh. As for greenhouse gas emissions, the city saw a reduction of 466 tons CO2e compared to 2020.
In order to eliminate some burdens and costs that come with investing in solar energy, the city teamed up with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to become a SolSmart designee. To secure this designation, the city reviewed zoning codes, created a webpage that clarified the city’s solar permitting process and city staff underwent training. In 2021, Wauwatosa became a gold designee, one of only nine cities in Wisconsin to hold that honor.
“After seeing the city garage, we got the buy-in from the council to get the city hall and library budgeted and completed in 2021,” Simpson explained. For this project, the city received a focus on energy grant for approximately $40,000, with the city cost estimated around $560,000.
In fact, Wauwatosa already has the next project in mind — the police department. Since the police station has a smaller roof, Simpson believes it will probably be a ground-mounted solar system on pedestals. Further down the line, the city hopes to include the water pumping station among its solar projects since there is a great deal of underutilized ground space. In the long-term, the city would also like to consider a solar project on the park facility, which would ultimately complete all the city buildings.
Besides Wauwatosa’s focus on solar panels, the city is also putting a focus on green energy projects by converting around 6,300 street lights to LED light fixtures, constructing green alleys and prohibiting the use of single-use plastic straws.
“I’d say that the community has received the projects well overall and we look forward to expanding on our sustainability projects in the future,” Simpson noted. “And we’ve had significant support from the common council and look forward to expanding the projects even more.”