In the past decade, and increasingly so in the last year, the City of Fitchburg has invested in clean energy sources.

It’s now starting to see some of that investment back.

While private entities and homeowners are also part of a recent trend within the community of becoming more energy independent, the city government has taken the lead, generating almost 80 percent of the community’s 506 kilowatts of solar energy with five solar arrays.

This surge goes back a decade, when the city promised to dedicate itself to energy independence by becoming one of 1,060 cities in the nation to sign on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. A year later it approved a 25x25 resolution, meaning that by 2025, around a quarter of the city’s energy needs should be met through clean energy sources.

Fitchburg is getting close, now generating 21 percent of its energy needs from solar panels, according to a city news release Monday. The release calculated the value of that energy – generated from solar panels mounted on City Hall, the library, the public works garage and the fire station on Marketplace Drive – at $30,000 annually.

With solar panels already on one new fire station and another on the way, that amount should be even higher next year. And at least one alder believes the city can go even further, presenting a proposal July 16 to the Common Council to commit to 100 percent clean energy.

Ald. Tony Hartmann (Dist. 4), who has been an advocate for clean energy for the past 15 years and a member of Fitchburg’s Resource Conservation Commission, told the Star days later the switch is just “common-sensical.”

“It goes to every part of your life,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Do you have solar panels” Are the heater and the chiller on at the same time? Is this building not really practical like that?’ People don’t think about the operating costs of living.”

Fulfilling a promise

The majority of the energy generated by the city has been installed within the past year.

The city’s first work toward its 25x25 pledge began when it installed solar panels capable of producing 12.3 kilowatts on the roof of City Hall in 2009. It added another 9.9 kilowatts to the public works garage in 2011. As of 2012, those panels were able to produce 3 percent of the city’s energy needs.

In 2017, the city added more to the roof of City Hall and the public works garage, retrofitted the library and included solar on the Marketplace Drive fire station’s rooftops for a total of 362 kilowatts worth of new solar panels.

The solar panels at City Hall and the library began generating energy in December 2017, and the remaining solar arrays were turned on a month later, according to the news release.

Since then, the panels have produced enough energy to move the city within 4 percent of its 25x25 pledge goals.

The city will get even closer to fulfilling the pledge with the completion of the east side fire station currently being built on Syene Road, as the building is being constructed to be “solar ready,” according to the release.

That station is expected to have a similar number of solar panels as what’s on the Marketplace Drive station, which has 90 kilowatts, department public information officer Meredith Shelton told the Star.

Those panels have a life expectancy of 40 years with a savings of $14,000 in one year in energy cost savings, and $500,000 over its lifetime.

Going all out?

While a resolution that will commit Fitchburg to 100 percent clean energy could come out within the next few months, city staff are looking at other municipalities in the region to see how feasible the idea is.

Ellen Geisler, public works sustainability and neighborhood development specialist, said for now, she’s watching Madison, which committed to its 100 percent clean energy initiative in March 2017, according to the Cap Times, and Middleton, which in July adopted a resolution to use 100 percent clean energy by 2040.

In order to accomplish that goal, she said, the city would need to go far beyond just solar panels on the roofs of public buildings.

Running an entire city on clean energy is more involved that it might sound, Geisler said. In addition to the city powering all of its buildings with clean energy, it would have to swap out every vehicle owned by city to be powered by electric.

In addition, she said, power for the vehicles would have to come from a clean energy source, rather than simply plugging in vehicles into outlets that receive energy generated from fossil fuels like coal.

That would take some serious “shifts in mindset” to achieve, she said.

“It’s just not the way we do things right now,” she said.

More on the way

In the meantime, the city is on its way toward meeting its 25x25 pledge years early and has plans to continue to reduce its carbon footprint.

After the fire station is complete, the building will be outfitted with solar panels in the same way the west side fire station is.

“We need to take care of the environment that we’re living in,” Geisler said. “Fitchburg is growing – the development isn’t going to stop. If we can do things in a renewable way and with low impact to the environment, we’ll all be better off in the long run.”

City administrator Patrick Marsh said he is “pleased” with a proactive council that permits the city to make strides toward clean energy initiatives through their investment in infrastructure.

He said it’s “the right thing to do,” both financially for the city of Fitchburg and for the Earth. He thinks as the city moves toward clean energy, others within the city will consider it for their energy needs.

“We want to be out in front of utilizing clean energy and renewables,” Marsh said. “We do it because it’s a good example for our businesses and residents. We believe that if we can step up and show that it works, maybe the businesses and the homeowners will follow suit.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.