A Small Solar Power System Is a Perfect Fit for a Village in Illinois

A central Illinois village proves that a water or wastewater plant solar energy project doesn’t have to be big to be economically viable.

A Small Solar Power System Is a Perfect Fit for a Village in Illinois

Students from Deer Creek-Mackinaw (Illinois) Intermediate School at a  field trip presentation by solar developer Jason Hawksworth of Hawk Energy Solutions.

The wastewater treatment plant in the Illinois village of Deer Creek is small at 132,000 gpd (design), but not too small to use solar power to cut its electric bills.

The village was so pleased with its first venture into solar power that it built another solar array for its water production system, and a third for the village office and community center.

The village of 700 people about 20 miles east of Peoria secured a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and put a 40 kW solar array online in late 2014. The electricity powers the pumps that move wastewater into the village’s wastewater treatment lagoons.

Lori Lewis, village clerk, recalls the system coming online at a time when solar generation was low, so the electricity produced wasn’t impressive at first. “Fall and winter are slowest generation months,” she says, “But by the time we had operated it the first year around, our summer months built up the credit and got us through the following winter.

“We generate enough power through the summer to take us all the way through the winter months. And each year since that first year, we have generated just enough power to cover our expenses. We pay a minimal electric bill for the delivery system, but we do not pay anything for the power because the solar system has generated all that we needed.”

Lagoon system

The Deer Creek wastewater treatment plant consists of four connected lagoons. Wastewater flows by gravity to a 35-foot-deep wet well and lift station. Three 5 hp pumps move the water up to the first lagoon, and it flows by gravity through the series of lagoons and a rock filter before discharge to Mud Creek. There are no aerators or mixers in the lagoons; the electrical demand comes only from two buildings and the three pumps in the wet well.

Still, the electric bills were $600 to $900 a month, a significant expense for a small village, according to Jim Hackney, village president. An electrician by trade, Hackney had some experience with solar power from working on an array at a local school, so he and the village board were receptive when Jason Hawksworth of Hawk Energy Solutions brought up the idea for the wastewater system.

“We came up with a system that would work at the wastewater treatment plant,” Hackney says. “It has worked very well. The lagoon system is somewhere in the neighborhood of a 98 percent offset. We just have to pay the metering charges because we need commercial grid power to start the motors and other equipment, and for backup.”

Low maintenance

The solar array requires minimal attention from village personnel. “Basically, there’s no maintenance at all,” Lewis says. “We just keep an eye on it and make sure we do online monitoring. The panels can be monitored remotely. We monitor them to make sure they are always working. If there is any disconnect, we are notified immediately.”

When the village expanded its water production capacity with a second well and a new 150,000-gallon elevated water storage tank (replacing a 50,000-gallon tank), a second solar array was constructed next to the water production plant. “With the connection of the second plant, we will have 100 percent redundancy, so if there is a disaster, we have a new well big enough and a new treatment plant to supply the town,” Hackney says.  

The drinking water plant produces about 50,000 gpd. The town anticipates some growth, which is one reason for expanding capacity. The wastewater plant is already large enough to handle a population significantly larger than what Deer Creek has today.

Different financing

Deer Creek’s first solar plant cost about $160,000, but about 60 percent of that was covered by the grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. That system is owned and operated by the village. The second system (25 kW) is owned and operated by Hawk Energy Solutions; the village has a power purchase agreement with an option to buy.

“It’s a rent-to-own system, basically,” Hackney says. “We pay the developer a negotiated rate lower than the Ameren Illinois rate for the electricity the system produces for five years. In the sixth year, we can buy the system out at a highly reduced rate.”

The 25 kW system provides 50 to 60 percent of the power for water production. The break-even points from both projects are favorable to the village. “We’ll recoup our investment on the wastewater treatment plant in year number eight,” Hackney says. “On the drinking water plant, that’s probably out there around the 10- or 11-year mark.”

Now Hawk Energy Solutions is building a third solar plant, a 12 kW system, to provide power for the office and community center.

Education opportunities

The solar array at the wastewater treatment plant gets regular visits from students at the local intermediate school. “One of the classes does an alternative energy project,” Lewis says. “The students come out and look at our site and check things out.”

Hawksworth enjoys taking part in the field trips and has given presentations on solar energy to students in Washington, Illinois, where his company is based. “If I get invited to do something of that nature, it’s a tremendous opportunity to teach kids about solar,” he says. “I’ve done it a couple of times, and I look forward to doing it again. It’s a good opportunity for them to learn what’s out there and the changes that are taking place in the energy sector.”

Since putting up the array at the wastewater treatment plant, Hawk Energy Solutions has been in talks with other central Illinois communities for similar solar projects, and Hawksworth expects some to get underway in 2019. As Deer Creek shows, the size of the plant doesn’t matter much.

“Those projects are going to be extremely viable,” Hawksworth says. “Solar has the same impact on a small plant as it does on a large plant, just on a smaller scale.”


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