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EDA sunny on solar panels, but re-bid needed

NEW ULM — EDA was all sunshine about putting solar panels on public housing, but the project was tabled due to a bid collecting error.

The Public Housing Solar Panel Project went in front of the Economic Development Authority (EDA) Tuesday morning. One bid was collected from Wolf River Electric for $319,695. Housing Coordinator Heather Bregel said she had reached out to two companies, but one never replied to the city’s inquiries.

Chad Chambers presented Wolf River Electric’s bid to the authority. Though the price for this project is costly, he said the city will save around $550,000 in energy costs over 30 years with solar panel usage.

“On every single property, there’s an electric meter,” Chamber said, “As tenants use energy, the meter [moves forward] like the odometer in a car. Once we install the solar panels, all the energy the solar panels produce is sent back into the meter and causes it to move backward. What’s left over at the end of the month is the net difference; that’s what has to be paid for.”

New Ulm is currently projected to spend $1.3 million in energy costs on just public housing in the next 30 years, according to Wolf River’s estimates. But Chambers said this is a conservative estimate. A new plan passed by the state legislature could bring these numbers higher, making the solar energy project a worthwhile investment.

“It is my opinion the [energy cost rates] are going to start increasing much quicker,” Chambers said. “Part of the reason is last year, our governor [mandated] all the energy produced by our utility companies be 100% carbon-free by the year 2040. Two other states in the US have signed similar bills, California and Massachusetts. After they signed these bills, their rates doubled in about three years. That is significantly faster than the [current] rate.”

EDA president Andrea Boettger commended the project’s merits. She said she had seen numerous public buildings with solar panels on them when she went to a training conference in Cleveland the week prior.

“I was very impressed to learn [about] the projections companies provided regarding the amount of energy solar is producing,” Boettger said. “The cost savings are clear. I think it’s certainly the way to go. I am in complete approval of this project.”

Though reception to the project was mostly positive from EDA members, a snafu emerged that brought the process to a halt. Finance Director Nicole Jorgensen asked Bregel if the sealed bid process was used when fielding bids. Bregel said this process was not followed, and she had several conversations with the lone bidder before the meeting.

If a project costs over $175,000, state statute requires bids be sent in and sealed until they’re unveiled to the public. No talking between vendors or between a vendor and staff concerning a sealed bid is allowed. Because this was not followed, tabling the project was necessary until the correct process could be completed.

“There are state requirements for purchasing and different rules we have to follow,” Jorgensen said. “We’ll have to put together a bid proposal and advertise it for a certain amount of time. Once we receive [the sealed] bids, they have to be opened in a public setting so everybody can see we only just opened them now and didn’t look [beforehand].”

EDA member Les Schultz made the motion to table the project until the correct bidding process can be carried out, with fellow member Michelle Markgraf seconding. The project will now enter the sealed bid process. Jorgensen said the project is expected to return to the EDA in December or January.

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