More municipalities than ever are looking to lower costs in the wake of poor economic times and slashed budgets. One of the most obvious places to start is to provide your town with self-generated, more efficient energy.
When the Lower Township (N.J.) Municipal Utilities Authority (LTMUA) decided to move in that direction, they explored adding a solar farm to their water treatment plant. The location had good sun exposure, and the plant had the land (four acres of drying ponds no longer in use). They signed a 15-year power-purchase agreement (PPA) with Calvi Electric of Atlantic City to provide the electricity.
Now all they needed to do was find a contractor who could do the job. Enter Mike Adkins and Cambria Solar, an installer in Pleasantville, N.J.
“They wanted to save money on their electric bills and cut down the high rates they felt they were being charged by Atlantic City Electric,” says Adkins, who heads up Cambria’s Construction and Installation division. “They put out a request-for-proposal (RFP), and we came back with the lowest price.”
What started as a 50-KW project quickly morphed into a 1.3-MW project when Cambria pointed out that a bigger system could power the entire plant. State grants and solar incentives made the larger project affordable, and LTMUA decided to move ahead.
The problem Cambria faced was finding a racking-and-mounting system that would allow easy installation to ensure the project was finished quickly. Adkins looked at several different options, but finally settled on Unirac’s ISYS Ground-Mount System.
Adkins says Cambria was looking for a solution they knew they could count on. The company had experience with Unirac, a New Mexico-based racking-and-mounting supplier, and knew they could effectively handle a project from beginning to end.
“We wanted someone that could provide us with field and engineering support to help us through the project,” Adkins says. “We knew Unirac’s system is robust.”
Marcelo Gomez, director of marketing for Unirac, says that once a contract is signed, the company turns it over to an internal project team that the client can call any time.
“In the solar industry, it’s all about how ready you are to deal with whatever challenges come up,” Gomez says. “Once we sign an agreement — once the deal is done — the project is immediately handed off to a dedicated management team.
“We can answer any questions the client might have, and we’ll even go to the site to help them out if necessary,” he continues. “We make sure the client has access to the best means and methodologies to use our products.”
Adkins says Unirac’s support for the Lower Township project began six months before the first panel was installed. Once the project began, Cambria had questions about how tight the racking system’s collars were supposed to be — they felt Unirac’s specifications wouldn’t work on this particular job.
The company flew its engineers out from New Mexico, examined the project and agreed with Cambria. The tightening specifications were adjusted, and Cambria was able to proceed with little interruption.
“We worked closely with the company — its engineers in particular — and we were really able to get a good read on the project before we started work,” Adkins says. “We knew exactly what it would cost, which allowed us to give the municipal officials a clearer idea of what they were purchasing.”
The project itself required work around the clock, and Adkins says the racking system allowed them to
pre-assemble the racking. During the day, this flexibility allowed Cambria to place double the crews in the field, which meant installing the panels in half the time.
“We set out tents on the property and built the frames at night,” Adkins says. “It saved us a lot of time during the actual installation.”
Gomez is convinced such flexibility won them the contract from Cambria.
“We were chosen because of our pre-assembly capabilities,” Gomez says. “That provides the installer with a certain amount of flexibility and helps them do their jobs more effectively.”
The LTMUA spent no capital dollars for the construction of the project. The 50-KW unit produces electric at a cost to the LTMUA of zero per KW for electrical power generated by the unit for the next 15 years. The 750-KW unit produces electricity for the LTMUA at a cost of $0.0375 per KW for electrical power generated for the first five years, with an escalation rate to $0.05 per kW during the 15-year term of the contract. The LTMUA had paid Atlantic City Electric Co. an average of $0.14 per KW of energy used.
Adkins says the project was completed successfully, and the Lower Township was just waiting for final state approval before they flipped the switch. Local inspections went smoothly.
“They were really tickled by how smoothly the project went, and we couldn’t have done it without using a racking system that allowed them to move forward quickly,” Adkins said. “They’ve estimated that they will save around $150,000 per year in electricity costs. It really worked out well for everyone.”