SCC’s Keokuk campus expands solar footprint

Solar panels are now part of the Southeastern Community College landscape on the Keokuk campus. A new field that will help power the campus and a neighboring school are under construction. Photo by Colin Magneson/RadioKeokuk

News Director Radio Keokuk

KEOKUK – A neighbor in need is a friend indeed. That statement couldn’t ring more true for a pair of bordering schools on the north side of Keokuk.

Keokuk Catholic Schools and the Keokuk Campus of Southeastern Community College sit back-to-back to one another with an open lot sitting between them that had been vacant and completely unused.

A partnership between the two schools that sprung over the past several months has allowed both to benefit while also lessening the carbon footprint left by either.

A drive down Messenger Road in Keokuk this spring points to a couple of anomalies from the usual drive-by appearance of the Keokuk satellite of the Burlington-based community college. Dirt has been moved, holes have been dug, and rows of solar panels are beginning to appear in the lot just northeast of St. Vincent School and directly west of SCC.
The project is the brainchild of Mike Mohrfeld of Mohrfeld Electric, a Fort Madison-based electrical and solar contractor who has watched attentively as the demand for renewable, green energy sources has risen throughout America over the past decade.

Mohrfeld approached the SCC Board of Directors and President Dr. Michael Ash with the idea of using solar panels to alleviate some of the Keokuk Campus’ electrical costs.

Michael Mohrfeld, president and owner of Mohrfeld Electric in Fort Madison goes over the finer points of solar power with Southeastern Community College President Dr. Michael Ash, and SCC board member Janet Fife-LaFrenz. Photo courtesy of Jeff Ebbing, SCC.

“Year one at SCC there’s about a 13% reduced cost in energy. Right now the rate for a kilowatt/hour runs at about 14.5 to 15 cents. The rate the college will pay once the system is up and running should be about 12 cents per kilowatt/hour.”

Ash said the benefits will be significant over time.

“We’re looking at, probably, in the first 15 years, a savings in our electrical costs of about $225,000. And then over the frame of these solar panels, about 30 years for us, about $1.6 million of savings,” he said.

Mohrfeld said start-up costs vary depending on the number of panels installed, but it typically takes less than a decade for the system to pay for itself in savings. The SCC project is of a larger scale, tallying 1,180 total panes which produce about 350 watts of electricity each.

“The ROI is going to be four and half to six and a half years give or take. This particular system is 450,000 watts combined and the return on investment fluctuates accordingly. The college is buying the panels over 15 years and that includes current lighting upgrade projects,” Mohrfeld said.

“This product has a 25-year warranty on the panels. We hang our hat on the fact that these panels are no maintenance. We don’t have to go out and remove snow from these.”

The panels produce less energy in the winter months when the sun is less prevalent and when the output is projected for cost savings, those slower months are taken into consideration.

“The reduction in output over the winter months is factored in to projections. Each building remains connected to the local utility, but the solar panels reduce the amount of grid power required,” Mohrfeld said.

The team was asked if power is stored when output from the solar panels exceeds the needs of the campus, which does occur occasionally.
“The way net metering works is we don’t store the energy. Any excess in power daily goes back out into the utility grid and effectively feeds the neighborhood in a roundabout way.”

The planned timeline has the panels being installed late this spring with a fence being installed around the property. Once the perimeter fence is installed, a state inspector will sign off if all specs are approved.

Ash said the project wasn’t really in the initial plans for the building.

“I think when the building was built, solar was probably an afterthought. We started to talk to Mike and his group and had an engineering report done at which point we realized that we could proceed with this,” he said.

“Ideally, now we can add courses on renewable energy systems and this technology could be incorporated into our curriculums.”

The one concern that is being felt in Iowa is the fact that during this past legislative session, lawmakers began to look at a bill that would implement a tax on Solar Power in the state. Mohrfeld, who has seen a growing portion of his business become solar energy systems said the bill isn’t expected to be taken up due to the fact that it is convoluted and there is a lack in understanding of solar panels at the state level.

“We’re certainly under the impression that systems that are currently approved or installed are going to be grandfathered in…. that’s what we’re being told by the people that are involved in the bill.”

Under the agreement between Keokuk Catholic Schools and SCC, KCS will retain ownership of the plot the solar panels are on. The private catholic school will receive power from two of the 12 rows of panels while SCC will be provided with the electricity from the other ten.

As for all the dirt and heavy equipment that has passersby wondering what’s going on. Mohrfeld said by June the ground around the panels should be restored to its previous condition.

“We told Keokuk Catholic Schools that we’d leave this ground exactly the way we found it and we intend to do so.”

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