Auditor: Local governments could save combined $375M with average solar installations

By: - February 26, 2021 5:40 pm

Iowa’s state auditor says solar panels could save Iowa’s cities, counties and school districts millions of dollars, based on reports about early installations. (Photo by Sirisak Boakaew/Getty Images)

If every Iowa county seat, school district and county government installed an average solar energy system, taxpayers would save $375 million over the life of the equipment, Auditor Rob Sand noted in a new report.

in the state’s first analysis of its kind, Sand asked local governments and school districts and the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association for information on solar installations, and came up with a list of more than 100. 

The auditor’s office picked 27 projects randomly and submitted questions to project backers. Of those, 13 responded.

The state’s analysis found that the local governments and school districts saved an average of $26,475 a year on energy because of the solar panels. That would figure out to $716,437 each over the life of the installation, Sand added. 

In an interview, Sand said he got the idea for the review in part by talking to family members who own solar panels and have discussed their energy savings. One of Sand’s centerpiece programs on behalf of taxpayers is the Public Innovations & Efficiencies (PIE) program.

The idea is to show government bodies ways to save money through energy conservation, limiting printing of documents or reducing water use, for example. Solar energy seemed worth adding to the list, and the study was born, Sand said.

Sand’s own office saved $30,000 in a year by deciding not to automatically print all the audits and other reports staffers produce, he said.

The solar installations have some advantages.

Often, the auditor noted, school districts could use sales tax receipts for the work, taking pressure off strained general funds that rely on property taxes.

Sand noted the the city of Knoxville joined the local school district in a project. And Mason City found that not only did the city government save money, but it also reduced its carbon emissions, which are tied to climate change. 

Other installations include those in Lisbon, the Iowa Falls school district, and Black Hawk County, for example. 

Some local governments buy power from solar energy systems owned by others or lease equipment, reducing upfront costs. The city of Letts had no upfront payments, and officials expect the system to pay for itself in 15 years, Sand noted. 

Sigourney schools also got a system with no upfront payment, but is considering a purchase for about $300,000. The equipment would pay for itself in roughly six to seven years, the district reported.

Solar energy systems typically last 20 to 30 years, according to the report.

Sand’s projection of $375 million in savings assumed each of the 99 county governments, the 100 county seats (Lee County has two), and 330 school districts installed a system. 

In an interview, Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director, said solar energy has gained interest in Iowa as the price of solar panels dropped 90% in the  past decade. Depending on the system and which utility is involved, systems can pay for themselves in five to 15 years, she added, but the time varies by the circumstances.

Iowa’s solar energy future is brighter than many realize, Johannsen said.

“The growth definitely is accelerating. People haven’t thought of Iowa as a hot spot for solar, but Iowa is 16th in the country for solar potential” according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, she added.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.