WATERLOO — Black Hawk County is moving closer to a major solar energy project at its buildings.

The county government’s alternative energy committee has recommended the Board of Supervisors move forward with solar arrays at eight county-owned buildings.

Committee members presented a plan Tuesday to spend an estimated $1.23 million to install solar panels at the Pinecrest office building, three buildings at the secondary roads Longfellow Avenue complex, the Elk Run Road maintenance shop, conservation headquarters and maintenance shop on Airline Highway, and one building at the sheriff’s training center near Raymond.

Building Maintenance Superintendent Rory Geving said the move makes both environmental and economic sense.

The county’s electric bill at those buildings is expected to drop from $63,308 to $960 a year. Based on conservative energy rate hikes, the panels would pay for themselves in 14 to 16 years and generate a $1.4 million net savings during the 25-year warranty period for the panels.

Geving said the panels also would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide — the gas that is contributing to global climate change — by the equivalent of planting 417,000 trees or not driving 35.8 million vehicle miles.

“Looking at these eight facilities does have a significant impact on the carbon footprint,” he said.

Eric Giddens, of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, said the financial savings could be much larger if energy companies raise rates more than projected.

“I’m usually here to talk about the environmental impacts; I care deeply about that,” Giddens said. “But this is also hedging against some potential large increases in energy rates out into the future.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen with the investor-owned utility rates,” he said. “I think this is a great deal not only for the environment but also for the county’s treasury.”

Supervisor Tom Little said he wanted more information about how the panels would affect the county’s insurance rates before making a decision.

Supervisor Chris Schwartz, who served on the alternative energy committee, urged his colleagues to jump on board with the plan, especially at the large Pinecrest building representing $945,000 of the overall plan.

“Pinecrest is where we have the biggest impact both financially and environmentally,” Schwartz said. “I think it’s really critical that we include that.”

Schwartz cited the current fires destroying the Amazon rain forest and failure of national governments to act on climate change as a need to act locally.

“It really kind of leaves it up to local governments around the country and around the world to make those differences,” he said. “We’ve got that opportunity here right now to do something really spectacular that’s going to benefit your children and grandchildren and generations.”

The Black Hawk County Conservation Board recently installed solar panels with donated funds on the Hartman Reserve Nature Center. The county is not looking at solar panels on the courthouse or jail, because the financial analysis showed a poor payback at this point.

Board members put no timeline on when the plan will return for a vote.

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