Solar Farm Creates a Bright Future in Ames, IA

Community harnesses sunshine to cut electricity costs and improve the environment.

By
Bill Lewis
On Monday, May 24, 2021 - 17:00
Ames, Story County, IA

A sunny day can brighten anyone’s mood, but in Ames/Story County, it does a little bit more: It can cut your electric bill and simultaneously help clean the air.

Customers of Ames Electric Services are participating in SunSmart, a community solar energy project that makes clean, sustainable energy available to more people.

Hundreds of customers have signed up and more are welcome to join in. “There’s no risk for customers who want to have green energy,” says Director of Ames Electric Services Donald Kom.

For $300, customers can purchase shares of SunSmart, the new 2 megawatt community solar farm established between  Airport Road and Highway 30. Each share, called a Power Pack, represents 175 watts of generating capacity.

Iowans Get Sun Smart

At least 150 Ames Electric Services customers have their own private solar systems in the Ames/Story County region. SunSmart makes sustainable solar energy available to customers who can’t install solar panels on their own property.

This might be the case if they are unable to afford their own system, have a shaded roof or rent their apartment or house.

Demand for Power Packs has been strong, says the city’s Energy Services Coordinator, Kayley Barrios Lain. By the beginning of 2021, 800 individuals had signed up to participate in the solar farm. Power Pack owners receive a credit on their monthly bill.

Credits average about $1 per Power Pack and are based on the amount of power the SunSmart solar farm produces over the life of the 20-year contract. Depending on the number of sunny days, customers may achieve payback in 16 to 18 years.

“We wanted to be very clear. It is not a way for customers to make money. It’s a way to do something good for the environment,” Kom says.

Each Power Pack represents the energy produced by half of a solar panel. Keeping them small was a way to make sure more people could afford to participate in SunSmart, he says.

Portable Solar Power in Ames, IA

Owners of Power Packs can take them along if they move to a new address, too, which is a benefit for renters. Homeowners can choose to transfer them to the new owner when they sell.

“Realtors have said that would be a great marketing feature,” Kom says.

Power Pack owners can give them to someone else or make them part of their will, as long as the recipient is a customer of Ames Electric Services. And the department will even buy them back at depreciated value.

Iowa State University in Ames, IA purchased 33% of SunSmart’s solar production. Other production was purchased for houses of worship by members of their congregations. The name of every Power Pack owner is inscribed on a sign at the solar farm.

City Council contracted with ForeFront Power to develop SunSmart. Partnering with a private company allowed the project to qualify for federal tax incentives, according to Kom.

Benefits Add Up

SunSmart’s environmental benefits will continue to grow over time.

Over the 20-year life of the customer’s contract, each Power Pack could produce enough electricity to power one average Ames home for about 9 months; offset 10,000 miles driven by cars or take one car’s emissions off the road for a year; remove as much CO2 from the air as an acre of trees and reduce CO2 emissions by about 5 tons.

Altogether, the SunSmart solar farm could produce enough electricity to power 440 Ames homes each year. Over 20 years, it could offset 113 million miles driven by cars; take more than 11,000 cars’ worth of emissions off the road; remove as much CO2 from the air as an 11,000-acre forest of trees and reduce CO2 emissions by about 57,000 tons. “I bought three Power Packs myself,” Kom says.

Power Packs are still available for sale. Anyone interested can go here to submit a purchase form and learn more about the project.

Want to learn more about Ames and Story County? Check out the latest edition of Livability Ames/Story County, Iowa.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Lewis is an award-winning business journalist whose work has appeared in publications across the United States.