Photos of the solar panel array at Cedar Creek Water Reclamation Facility on Tuesday, March 3, 2019 in Athens, Georgia. The ribbon cutting for the array took place on Thursday, February 28, 2019, approximately three years from the project's conception. The array is projected to produce 1, 038,000 kilowatt hours per year. (Photo/Christina R. Matacotta, crmatacotta@gmail.com)

Athens-Clarke County is slowly but surely adopting greener standards.

Mayor Kelly Girtz signed the Sierra Club’s Mayors For 100% Clean Energy initiative on Feb. 4, pledging to adopt only clean energy Athens by 2035. On March 1, a ribbon cutting celebrated 1,824 solar panels installed at the Cedar Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

“I think we’re entering an era when there’s gonna be a dramatically expanding number of projects like this,” Girtz said. “Ultimately to get us to a point where we can facilitate 100 percent clean energy for the entire community.”

The solar array will produce more than 1 million kilowatt hours per year. According to data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2017 an average “residential utility customer” used about 10,400-kilowatt hours annually. 

The project was made possible through the Georgia Power Commercial and Industrial REDI program, in which the power generated by the array will be sold back to Georgia Power and the ACC government will receive credits on its power bills as a result.

“I think we’re entering an era when there’s gonna be a dramatically expanding number of projects like this."

— Kelly Girtz, ACC mayor 

In the long run, the Cedar Creek solar array is estimated to save consumers money by reducing overall electricity costs for the community.

“Anybody who drinks water, or takes a shower or flushes the toilet, is benefitting because that’s going to be a less expensive activity now,” Girtz said.

This project isn’t a stand-alone effort. Through SPLOST 2011 funding, an “Energy Sustainability Plan” passed with a $970,000 budget. The current budget for this plan is $870,000 after $150,000 of the original budget passed was transferred to a related construction project and a $50,000 grant was added after the fact. 

This plan outlined three major subprojects: changes from high power lightbulbs and fixtures in ACC government facilities to LED, a gradual replacement of government-used vehicles to hybrid and electric and solar panel installations at the Fire Station and Cooperative Extension Service Center on Cleveland Road.

SPLOST Program Administrator Keith Sanders oversees the 2011 sustainability plan. He said with about $650,000 left in the project’s budget, the light bulb and fixture replacement is about 50 percent complete and the vehicle replacement is about 30 percent complete.

The solar panel designs have been approved for the fire station and service center but will not be installed until construction is complete.

When he started working for ACC 14 years ago, Sanders said the addition of a sustainability aspect to any project wouldn’t have even been part of the conversation. Now, Sanders has seen and increasing amount of SPLOST submissions and approvals that place focus on some kind of sustainability-related aspect.

Community support has been strong, Girtz said. The desire to end dependence on carbon-based or other non-renewable energy sources in ACC is “reflected in the elected leadership,” he said.

“I think there’s enormous public appetite,” Girtz said. “When I talk to people around the community, whether they’re 20 or 70, there’s an interest in setting the stage for a more sustainable community.”

If there is any barrier to the implementation of these projects, it would be funding, Sanders said. The Cedar Creek solar array cost about $1 million.

Project proposal 84 under SPLOST 2020, the “Energy Sustainability Program” that covers funding for the 100 percent clean energy pledge, has a proposed budget of $17 million.

“It’s expensive to put in up front,” Sanders said. “But it is saving you money every year on energy.”

Girtz described the funding allocated for the SPLOST 2011 project as “modest package,” saying he anticipates something “much more significant” from SPLOST 2020.

The mayor and commission will approve the final SPLOST projects in July after the Citizens Advisory Committee submits a final list from the total 88 projects in May.

Later this year, Girtz said the mayor and commission will vote on a sustainability plan that outlines its clean energy mission, which will be ultimately determined by SPLOST 2020 funding.

Corrections: In a previous version of this article, it was incorrectly stated that the Cedar Creek solar array will power to water reclamation facility. The language regarding this statement and the Georgia Power REDI program has since been corrected. It was also incorrectly stated that the "Energy Sustainability Plan" under SPLOST 2011 funding was "passed" with a $870,000 budget, when it was actually passed with a $970,000 budget and $870,000 is the current budget. This has also been corrected. The Red & Black regrets these errors.