Butler County’s largest city, already known for its green energy — with ownership of three hydroelectric generators on two rivers — now can become a bit greener with its electricity.
City Council recently approved new regulations that will allow residents to use solar-energy panels and sell excess energy to the municipally owned electric utility. Hamilton utility staff also is working to make the same opportunity available for businesses.
“We have not had any applications at this point,” said Nathan Perry, Hamilton’s utility business manager. The allowance of solar-power sales to the city began with bills that were sent out on March 1.
The city will buy electricity from residents for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. This year, it sells power to homeowners for 14.7 cents. Homes cannot completely disconnect from the city’s electric system but must put electronics in place that detach their homes from the system during power failures.
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There is an 8.7-cent difference between those prices because the city has many investments, such as a power plant and power lines, costs of city electric workers and also costs associated with the city’s utility debts that must be paid down.
Jeff Gambrell, executive director of Hamilton! Civic Society Inc., praised the city for pursuing green energy.
“The more our city strives to utilize alternative sources of energy and reduce our carbon emissions, the greater the quality of life we can expect in terms of environmental impact and reduction in energy costs,” Gambrell said. But he wishes the city had gone further to help “residents of all socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to own affordable, clean energy.”
“With more than 50 percent of the city’s properties being rental housing, and a disproportionately high amount of these residing in Hamilton’s underrepresented neighborhoods, we need to seek legislation that empowers these residents to purchase green energy in the form of community solar farms,” he said.
With such shared solar farms, several residents in an area could make small investments that pay off over time, he said, adding: “Allowing this practice to occur has the potential to lower the monthly cost of rent for low-income families and encourage them to invest in their own community. Otherwise, we may potentially risk widening the gap between our poorest and richest neighborhoods.”
Based on 2017 rates, the city estimated a residential customer who pays $1,848 a year can have that bill reduced to $1,425 annually. The solar panels must serve only the needs of a single home and cannot be shared among customers. They also must meet city standards
Perry said the city estimated solar power use could pay for itself in less than 20 years, including the costs of a second meter customers must buy and install to measure electricity that goes to the city.
“Obviously, that is a very long pay-back period for the investment, but, yeah, you are getting your power from a very renewable resource,” Perry said.
He said the payback rate may improve over time as solar panels and other equipment drop in price and become more efficient. On the other hand, once such panels are installed, they tend to lose efficiency over time, he said.
Another factor that can improve payback time is the possibility homeowners can sell solar-renewable-energy credits into a marketplace, further lowering their rates.
The city worked with Sawvel and Associates in Findlay, Ohio, to develop the rates.
As the utilities embark on the solar-buying pilot program, officials so far are limiting the number of homes that can sell power to 1 percent of the prior year’s peak-electric-demand period, which equates to about 260 homes. The city’s 2016 peak electric demand was 143 megawatts. The peak usage last year was 131 megawatts.
Customers interested in moving forward with solar, or with hopes of learning all the details, can call customer service at 513-785-7100 or 513-785-7202.
“Now we’re going through the process of developing the rules and regulations for businesses, as well as the rate for businesses,” Perry said, noting there’s no timeline for that. “We wanted to start with residential. It seems that that’s where we were getting most of the requests from.”
Some 48.5 percent of Hamilton’s electricity is created by renewable sources. Among the variety of sources, Hamilton’s Meldahl plant on the Ohio River creates 29.7 percent, its Greenup plant, also on the Ohio, creates 15.5 percent and Hamilton’s small hydroelectric facility along the Great Miami River creates 0.5 percent.