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A ground-mounted solar panel array above the parking lot at the Athens Community Center on Nov. 22, 2021.

January 13, 2022

Selecting Solar Sustainability

Solar energy initiatives shine in Athens

By Tre Spencer | For The Post

When driving through a hilly Athens neighborhood, or even down bustling East State Street, it is more common than ever to see solar panels on residential homes and city properties.

Renewable energy sources, like solar, have become easier to implement as an alternative to nonrenewable energy to power homes and businesses. People in Athens and throughout the country have become increasingly aware of their ecological footprint and what they can do to reduce it.

Multiple non-profit organizations within the city of Athens, such as Rural Action and the Sustainable Ohio Public Energy Council, are working with residents and businesses interested in implementing solar energy alternatives. Athens City Council has also been potentially looking to invest in solar energy across the city and is planning a project with Third Sun Solar.

Over the past few decades, climate scientists have stressed the importance of reducing harm to the planet from climate change, and in some circumstances, solar energy can help do so.

Solar energy is a renewable energy source that can be used to power homes and businesses using panels that capture energy from the sun. Residents of Athens and local businesses are taking a chance on solar energy in hopes of reducing their overall carbon footprint and possibly saving money on their electric bills.

The city recommends a few local solar panel installers like Third Sun Solar, Appalachian Renewable Power Systems and Athens Electric to supply solar power to homes and businesses in the local area.

To have solar panels installed at a business or home, there are different permit processes based on which one the installation is for. Third Sun Solar and Ohio American Electric Power, or AEP, both offer free consultations for homeowners and businesses and send crews to install solar panels locally.

For residential homes, panels can be secured on rooftops or on the grounds of a property. Residents can submit an application to the city by mail or at the code office. There is a $50 application fee, which is then applied to the final cost of a permit.

John Schmieding, resident of Athens, said he wanted to use solar energy to reduce his carbon footprint. The panels on his roof have been installed for around 4 years, and they have lowered his electric bill with the AEP Ohio division significantly.

“In terms of cost, I think our projection was eight to nine years to basically pay (the solar panels) off from savings and then after that it's all savings,'' Schmeiding said. “But I think one of the primary reasons (for using solar) is really about climate change. The electricity we were getting before was often being generated by coal, and that was not a good thing. So the fact that we're doing it from panels and not producing any pollutants nor any greenhouse gasses, that's really our primary thing.”

Schmieding also added that the panels cut his energy bill down, and that the billing process is simple for AEP.

“But I think one of the primary reasons (for using solar) is really about climate change. The electricity we were getting before was often being generated by coal, and that was not a good thing. So the fact that we're doing it from panels and not producing any pollutants nor any greenhouse gasses, that's really our primary thing.” —John Schmieding

“I think we were paying $50 to $60 a month, now we're paying more like $10 to $15,'' Scmeiding said. “It's just all automatic. Our system is tied into their grid. So they suck the extra electricity away when we don't need it, and it just functions like a normal cycle as far as us and AEP goes. We get a monthly bill and that gets paid and our solar generation is deducted from the bill.”

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Tre Spencer |For The Post

An array of solar panels mounted on the home of John Schmieding, an Athens resident who powers his home entirely by solar energy on Nov 22, 2021.

Though many customers have had a positive experience with solar, Ohio AEP said that for some, it may not have been as cost efficient as they hoped.

“The use of solar energy has continued to increase year after year for the past 12 years,” an AEP spokesperson said in an email. “There may or may not be cost saving for customers who use solar energy. We have received feedback from customers who say they have saved money and others who say their costs have increased.”

However, for some, like Schmieding, the switch to solar energy was more about reducing carbon emissions.

Commercial businesses owners can also submit an application for ground or roof-mounted solar panels. The application process differs depending on the size of the project. Businesses must pay state-issued permit fees that range from around $618 onwards depending on the square footage of the building. Lastly, they must pass three separate state inspections.

In addition to efforts within the city, the federal government has also sent money for solar expansion into the region. According to a previous Post report, the Sustainable Ohio Public Energy Council, a non-profit based out of Athens that works in the region to increase access to solar energy, was awarded a $100,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to provide free solar assessments for businesses.

Mathew Roberts, director of marketing for SOPEC, said their solar assessment program offers a look into costs for the placement of panels and details about tax incentives for small, rural businesses.

“We offer that to any small business in the state of Ohio, as long as they are considered a small business … and they're within an eligible rural area defined by the USDA Rural Development Office,” Roberts said. “We work with dozens of businesses every year, just helping them take the first step of thinking about solar.”

Roberts also said there is USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program grant that businesses can apply for. This helps businesses make renewable energy upgrades or energy efficient improvements. The grant is also a 25% reimbursement for any project costs associated with installing panels.

Residents and businesses are not the only ones that could benefit from solar energy. Athens City Council heard a proposal in October for a new solar energy project. The project aims for savings over time, and it would come in the form of lowered energy bills from several community spaces over the course of the next few years. The plan is still in its early development stage, but City Council President Chris Knisley said it is likely to begin this year.

Ben Ziff, councilman at-large, noted that with cost savings a factor, the city will not see an energy bill decrease immediately for the locations where the new panels could be installed.

“I think it is going to be almost the same, realistically,” Ziff said. “I don't think there's gonna be that much of a financial incentive directly for us. Down the road, once we're able to buy these facilities, then we'll start to see some huge financial benefits, but that’s down the road. For now, I think the main focus is just on the fact that it's such a large carbon emission … (and) the main goal is just to make it a much greener version of power.”

Ziff also said he heard few concerns about the proposed new solar projects from Athens residents, with the exception of some East Side residents.

“I haven't really heard any strong opposition to having a greener city, especially with that large amount of (carbon emission) offset,” Ziff said. “I know I heard concern from several people when they first were talking about the location or worried about the East Side Community Garden and the dog park, but neither of those are really going to be that seriously affected. That's been the only reservation I've heard so far, and that was quelled quite quickly.”

In October, Athens City Council heard a proposal from Third Sun Solar introducing a plan that would provide solar energy to several locations in the city: Athens Public Library, Athens Dog Park, Athens Community Center and the Athens Canopy Pool.

The library and dog park locations would receive panels that are installed on the ground, whereas the community center would receive mounted panels on the roof and the canopy pool on the carports. Construction is proposed to begin in March of 2022 and finish by October of 2022.

Outside of city advocacy, Athens also has local organizations interested in increasing the use of more sustainable energy measures. Rural Action is a non-profit organization focused on sustainable, environmentally friendly economic growth in Appalachia and advocates expanding access to renewable energy solutions in the area.

Sarah Conley-Ballew, director of the sustainable energy solutions program at Rural Action, said they work with farmers, businesses and homeowners in the area to make sustainable energy more accessible.

“There's been a shift in thinking, certainly across the country, and to the extent that it's changed in Appalachian Ohio,” Conley-Ballew said. “I do think people are more resolved than ever to find solutions for their energy need and to really think more about where their energy comes from and how it's generated. I think people are increasingly aware of the impacts of coal, and the impacts that coal has had on our region.”

AUTHOR: Tre Spencer
EDITOR: Taylor Burnette
COPY EDITOR: Anna Garnai
PHOTO: Tre Spencer