McKees Solar Park

McKees Solar Park will be expanded this year as part of a broader project to increase Newark’s solar power generation capacity.

The tall trees that shade Helga Huntley’s home in Timber Creek would make installing solar panels on the roof ineffective. But, thanks to a new program from the City of Newark, all of the electricity that Huntley and her family use now comes from solar and other renewable energy sources.

“I am an oceanographer, professionally, so I deal a lot with the kind of data that shows how humans are affecting the climate,” Huntley said. “It’s important to me that we do something about it, and at some level, everybody has to contribute.”

Huntley, who serves on the city’s Conservation Advisory Commission, was among the first Newarkers to sign up for the program, which rolled out in May. Participants in the program pay a monthly surcharge to receive power from 100 percent renewable sources.

Existing city electric customers can opt into the program, while all new accounts are automatically enrolled unless they opt out.

So far, participation is exceeding estimates, city officials said.

As of June 30, more than 1,600 people were enrolled in the program, representing approximately 13 percent of the city’s total customers, according to Finance Director David Del Grande. Approximately 30 of those are people who opted in, and the rest are new accounts.

“It’s doing better than we anticipated,” City Manager Tom Coleman said. “I thought we would have a lot more people opt out than we have had. So I think our initial estimates for the program are definitely exceeded.”

Del Grande said the program increases a customer’s electric bills by approximately 10 percent. For Huntley, that amounts to less than $10 per month, she said.

Coleman expects the program to generate approximately $120,000 to $200,000 per year.

In simple terms, much of the money will go toward supporting the addition of more solar power generation in Newark.

The city already maintains the McKees Solar Park off Cleveland Avenue and plans to add approximately 1.3 MW of solar generation to the city’s inventory later this year or early next year. Solar panels are planned for the roof of the municipal building, the George Wilson Center and two buildings at the city maintenance yard off Phillips Avenue. Solar panels will also be installed in a vacant field near the Newark Reservoir, and the existing McKees site will be expanded.

The new solar panels are part of a $10 million energy efficiency initiative that is funded by a loan that will be paid off though cost savings and energy sales over 20 years.

If demand for renewable energy exceeds what Newark produces, the city will purchase renewable energy certificates, often referred to as RECs, from other renewable energy producers in the area.

Because the energy grid is fed by multiple sources, there’s no way for customers to know exactly where their energy comes from. RECs are sold by producers of solar, wind and other green energy and assign “ownership” of the green energy to the purchaser.

“The way that you track that you bought it from a renewable source is RECs,” Coleman explained earlier this year. “They’re really the tracking mechanism of who gets to say they’re using renewable energy.”

The renewable energy program was one of the goals of the Newark Sustainability Plan, which was approved by council in 2019. The plan calls for Newark to sell 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2060, improve air quality, reduce water consumption and encourage a “car-free lifestyle,” among other goals.

“It’s great that we offer this program to those who want to do a little bit more,” Del Grande said. “We greatly appreciate our customers’ help with reaching our sustainability goals.”

Coleman said the city is planning outreach efforts to educate residents about the program and is expecting more people to opt in when they learn more about it.

“I’ve had quite a few people tell me, ‘Oh, yeah, I still need to do that’,” he said. “So I think we’ll see more people join, and we’ve had some businesses reach out with some interest.”

Huntley noted that the city’s program is an easy way for Newarkers to purchase clean energy and do their part to reduce climate change.

“One of the beauties of this program is that it’s super easy,” she said. “You don’t really have to do anything. You don’t have to do your own investigation, you don’t have to do price comparisons, you don’t have to make sure that your house is in the right condition that your roof can hold up a solar panel. You’re not responsible for any of the infrastructure. The city handles all of that.”

Andrew O’Donnell, another early adopter of the program, said participating has gotten him a lot closer to his own environmental goals. The Arbour Park resident switched to driving an electric vehicle in 2018 and can now charge his Nissan Leaf with 100 percent renewable energy.

“We have 100 percent renewable electricity to our house, which the car runs off that,” O’Donnell said. “The only thing left is getting rid of the gas water heater, which is going to be sometime this year. So we’re just about a 100-percent carbon-free household here.”

On his first bill under the new program, the renewable energy surcharge was $6.90, which he said is well worth it.

“It’s a complete game changer,” he said. “Every time we used any electricity in the house, it felt like most of it is coming from some dirty plant somewhere and is throwing smoke in the air because I’m using electricity to wash the dishes. Now, it’s just complete peace of mind to go ahead and watch TV or just go about your normal life and know that all your electricity is coming from a renewable source. It means a lot.”

For more information about the renewable energy program, click here.

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