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Despite legal posturing from an energy company, the Sauk County Board voted 21-8 Tuesday to enter negotiations with a private vendor that would install and operate solar panels on government buildings.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Sauk County Corporation Counsel Todd Liebman told supervisors he recently heard from an attorney with Alliant Energy who said the company has concerns about the county’s proposal.

“They may create a legal issue for us that we might end up being involved in,” Liebman said.

The resolution approved by the board allows county staff to enter negotiations with E3 Coalition, a Viroqua firm.

Although the contract has not yet been drafted, the basic idea is that E3 would pay for the installation of solar panels on three county buildings, allowing the company to take advantage of federal solar tax credits — something the county is not permitted to do.

The county would then purchase power from E3 and have the option of buying the solar panel systems at 5 percent of their remaining market value after six years.

The deal is projected to save the county roughly $2.2 million in energy costs. And the solar panel systems may cost the county roughly $110,000 if it decides to purchase them at the end of the six years.

“This proposal costs the county nothing upfront and saves the county money starting day one,” said Supervisor Scott Von Asten of Baraboo, who has championed the project as chair of the board’s Property and Insurance Committee.

The so-called third-party solar project is something that has been tested in other communities, and has been challenged by energy companies that believe the deals essentially create unauthorized power utilities.

“Obviously, these folks can’t just afford to give solar panels to the county for free,” Liebman said. “This isn’t a free deal. Somebody’s going to be making some money off of this … The argument is that (the company selling power to the county is) a utility.”

Members of the public who spoke to the board prior to the debate encouraged supervisors to approve moving forward with the solar project.

“The risk to the county seems to be almost negligible,” said Gerd Muehllehner of North Freedom, a nuclear physicist who has invested in 240 solar panels throughout the area, including his own home. “It’s hard to imagine how you would not come out ahead.”

He said his investment in solar energy, which he began seven years ago, was the best business decision he has ever made.

Baraboo Range Preservation Association Executive Director Todd Persche said young people always ask him what his generation is doing for the environment. He said the county’s solar project would be an excellent opportunity to set a positive example for future generations.

But several supervisors said they weren’t comfortable with the project, citing legal concerns and criticisms about the promise of solar energy.

Supervisor Eric Peterson of Prairie du Sac said renewable energy already is being utilized. He cited the power generated by the Sauk Prairie dam.

“I’m not against solar,” Peterson said. “It’s just that some of these things they keep saying, I’m not sure I believe all of it.”

Supervisor Andrea Lombard of Baraboo said the only other community that has utilized third-party solar is Menona. She said she was not comfortable with the legal uncertainties, and the idea of using solar energy.

“I just think we ought to let somebody else work the bugs out of this funding thing,” Lombard said. “And as far as the solar panels themselves: I have no problem with solar, but solar is a subsidized form of getting energy and whether we’re paying for it as Sauk County citizens or citizens of the United States, it’s a subsidized thing. So the money is coming out of our pockets somewhere.”

Supervisors who voted against the proposal included Peterson and Lombard, as well as supervisors Tommy Lee Bychinski of Reedsburg, David Moore of Wisconsin Dells, Jerry Kast of Hillpoint, Dennis Polivka of Spring Green, Henry Netzinger of Prairie du Sac, and Brian Peper of Loganville.

Baraboo News Republic reporter