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MidAmerican Energy’s Dave Johnson encourages the City Council to reconsider its plan to purchase solar energy from Red Lion Renewables.

KNOXVILLE — A plan to build solar panel arrays that will provide electricity to municipal buildings won City Council approval Monday, but not without a power struggle.

A power purchase agreement with Red Lion Renewables was challenged by MidAmerican Energy, the utility that supplies electricity to the city. Red Lion plans to build three arrays that will power five city buildings, but three MidAmerican staffers made a last-minute effort to pull the plug on the effort.

“Don’t rush into this decision,” said MidAmerican’s Dave Johnson.

The agreement isn’t good for the city or its taxpayers, Johnson argued. More than half of the energy that MidAmerican provides in Iowa is from renewable sources, he said, and that will rise to 100 percent by 2021. If the city wants to go green, it can get wind-generated energy from its current provider, he said.

Red Lion’s plan used inaccurate projections of MidAmerican rates over the 30-year life of the plan Johnson said. The city’s savings would not match Dvorak's proposal, he said.

“We’re not against renewables,” Johnson said. “We’re not your typical utility.”

MidAmerican was late to the discussion, however, City Council members pointed out. Knoxville leaders have met publicly with Red Lion President Terry Dvorak several times this year, and the utility should have spoken up sooner, Council Member Megan Suhr said.

The utility caught the council flat-footed, and its appeal offered no specifics on rates or savings, Suhr said.

“Renewable energy is something I care deeply about,” she said after the meeting, “so I know how some of these things work. They didn’t present us with any data that said this wasn’t a good choice for the city.

“This shows people in our community that we are progressive. We’re excited about renewable energy. We’re taking a leadership role in providing some solar capacity for our city facilities.”

The council voted 3-1 to move forward with the plan, which Dvorak said would save Knoxville about $400,000 in energy costs over the next three decades. The agreement is contingent on him lining up investors and donors within the next three months. He needs to raise $150,000 for the most visible array, to be built as a parking shelter on a city lot just north of the firehouse at 308 S. 3rd St. It would power City Hall, Knoxville Fire & Rescue and the Knoxville Public Library, but nothing will happen if the money doesn’t emerge soon, Dvorark said.

“If it passes 90 days from now, the economics probably aren’t gonna work,” he said.

In other action, the council:

  • approved the rezoning of 502 E. Main from commercial to multi-family residential use. The change allows the Vermeer Group, which recently bought the site from the city, to develop hIgher-density housing — either a duplex or triplex — there next year.
  • approved nearly $8,000 to address four changes that came up as crews improve Young’s Park this summer. Among these is the installation of a sump pump west of the new skate park, made necessary when workers reached water in the soil higher than originally anticipated.

Pat Finan is the editor of the Knoxville Journal-Express and Pella Chronicle. He can be reached at 641-295-0624 or via email at editor@journalexpress.net or editor@pellachronicle.com