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Solar Cincinnati

Push for solar energy could help revitalize Cincinnati’s economy

By German Lopez · December 19th, 2012 · News
news1_solarpanels_cincinnatizooPhoto: Cincinnati Zoo

Could Cincinnati become the solar capital of the region? A new report by a citizen-based environmental advocacy group says yes. Environment Ohio on Dec. 5 released a report titled “Building a Solar Cincinnati,” which touts the benefits and potential of solar power in Cincinnati.

Christian Adams, who wrote the report along with Julian Boggs, says Cincinnati is poised to take charge in this renewable energy front thanks to sustainability-minded city officials and public, a “budding solar business sector” and the great business environment in the city.

The idea’s most obvious benefits are to the environment. If the report’s suggestions were taken up, it would place Cincinnati in a strong contrast to Ohio overall, which gets 82 percent of its electricity from coal. That could set a clear example at a state and regional level for combating global warming. But there are economic benefits, too. The Environment Ohio report points out that local solar initiatives mean local jobs. “You can’t export these jobs,” Adams says. “It’s a great opportunity for economic revitalization.” 

Solar energy brings an array of job opportunities for solar installers, designers and engineers, construction workers, project managers, sales associates and marketing consultants. The report points out “energy-related segments of the clean economy added jobs at a torrid pace over the last few years, bucking trends of the Great Recession.”

Still, there are hurdles. Although solar energy saves money in the long term, installing solar panels has a high upfront cost. The cost can make the short term appear too bleak for many potential customers. To help overcome the short-term problem, the report suggests third-party financing, in which customers agree to give up roof space to have a solar power company install panels, and then customers agree to buy their power needs from the company. It’s a win for the solar power company because the panels eventually pay for themselves through new customers, and it’s a win for the customer because he or she sees stable, lower energy costs and enjoys cleaner air.

The short-term problem can also be overcome with some government incentives.

Ohio’s Clean Energy Law, which was passed in 2008, pushes utility companies into the renewable energy market with Solar Renewable Energy Credits. These are credits utility companies must earn to meet annual benchmarks by installing solar panels or purchasing them from third parties. In Cincinnati, Duke Energy has followed the law’s requirements by establishing a renewable energy credit program.  

Ohioans also have access to some tax breaks — the Energy Conversion Facilities Sales Tax Exemption, Air-Quality Improvement Tax Incentives and Qualified Energy Property Tax Exemptions — and loan programs like the Energy Loan Fund and Advanced Energy Fund, which encourage solar and other renewable energy sources.

At a local level, Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan is making a push to increase green incentives. The city already has a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which gives tax abatements to environmentally friendly facilities. The program provides a 100 percent real property tax exemption for newly constructed or rehabilitated properties if they adopt green standards. The idea is individuals and organizations will be rewarded with higher tax abatement caps as they do more to become greener.

The problem is the current incentives are only strong enough to push people into doing the bare minimum. If Quinlivan’s suggestions are approved, the city government will strengthen rewards at higher levels to encourage individuals and organizations to do more.

With the new plan, commercial properties will be forced to make silver, gold and platinum standards to qualify for the tax abatement. Residential properties will still qualify for the most basic tax abatement, but financial incentives remain strong for doing more. Basic LEED certification qualifies someone for $275,000 in tax abatements for 15 years, silver certification is up to $400,000 for 15 years, gold is up to $562,000 for 15 years and platinum is unlimited for 15 years.

The idea is to provide a major financial incentives that help overcome big upfront costs. The reformed program is still working its way through City Council, but Quinlivan is fairly optimistic about its chance of passing.

“What we’re doing is driving a lot of that energy efficiency, including solar,” she says.

The Cincinnati Zoo was one of the first groups to take up LEED. Its solar initiative began in 2006, when the zoo worked with Duke Energy to install solar panels on an education center, making it one of the first LEED buildings. In 2009, the zoo built a 10-kilowatt ground mount at its main entrance.

Then, in April 2011, the Cincinnati Zoo went big. It established a massive solar panel array — totaling to 1.6 megawatts — in its parking lot. Mark Fisher, senior director of facilities and sustainability at the zoo, says the project wasn’t easy but has helped save the zoo millions of dollars and provided a steady source of energy even as prices from other sources fluctuate. “That 20 percent of my power I can just take off the table,” Fisher says. “I know that it’s stable, it’s there and it’s going to be there.”

The most difficult part wasn’t the engineering or construction. In fact, Fisher said those aspects of the project were easy. Instead, the big hurdle was essentially the upfront cost. The zoo didn’t pay the upfront cost, but getting PNC Bank, Melink Corporation and every level of government on-board and together for the project required a lot of time and patience.

In addition to benefiting the zoo, Fisher says the plan has helped establish a clear example of undertaking a solar project. It’s something other groups have noticed as they begin wading through the weeds of financial support and multiple levels of tax incentives. 

“We have continued to be hammered with inquiries,” Fisher says, pointing to the fact solar panel prices have already dropped by 20 percent since the zoo’s project and will likely continue dropping.

He added, “If we’re making money, PNC is making money and Melink is making money, there’s no reason other folks can’t figure it out too.” ©



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