The tilted structure that lines the parking lot at Key West’s City Hall is not a set of stadium bleachers or a shade pavilion, although cars do park beneath it.
The combination of glass and steel, tilted at a precise angle, is a nearly $700,000 solar array that converts sunshine to electricity.
A $250,000 grant from Keys Energy Services power utility paid for the solar panels themselves, while the city paid for the support structure and other electrical components, said Terrence Justice, chief building official for the City of Key West. Justice until recently was also the city’s energy manager and last week gave a report to the city commission about the solar power production, as well as the cisterns underneath City Hall, which opened nearly three years ago in a historically preserved former school building.
Justice emphatically clarified misinformation that was given to the city commissioners during construction of City Hall.
The solar panels at City Hall produce about 10,000 kilowatt hours of power each month, meaning they reduce the building’s power bill by about $1,100 per month and produce about 20% of its power needs, Justice told Key West Weekly on Oct. 30.
“And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “Those panels are actually producing more than their actual rated capacity, but there’s no way they’ll ever produce enough electricity to power the whole building at City Hall. We unfortunately had people stand at the podium during City Hall construction and tell the commissioners that we’d be able to produce all the power needed for this building with that solar array.
“I’m an electrical engineer and I knew there was just no way,” Justice said. “It’s just not possible to power the whole building with solar energy.”
He added that he’s an advocate for alternative energy, “but the greatest harm you can do in your advocacy is overstate the effectiveness of a proposal, so that misrepresentation in the beginning was unfortunate.”
Mayor Teri Johnston and the other commissioners listened intently to Justice’s Oct. 16 energy report and inquired about potential solar options at other city-owned facilities, including the newly purchased building on Northside Drive.
“We really don’t know our solar potential,” Johnston told Key West Weekly on Oct. 29. “We’ve got a lot of information that we need to understand when it comes to our solar options.”
Johnston has asked officials from Keys Energy Services for a presentation at an upcoming city commission meeting to review “strengths, weaknesses and constraints caused by the big energy utilities not wanting competition from solar power alternatives.
“Hopefully that’ll result in a good, two-way conversation,” Johnston said.