PAXTON — When the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department installed solar-panel systems on its offices in Paxton and Watseka in winter 2011, the agency's administrator said he expected the savings on electricity bills to "completely pay off the cost of each system" in "just seven to eight years."
Nearly 2-1/2 years later, the agency has realized some benefit from the "green" energy, but it has a ways to go to reach former Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett's goal.
A Paxton Record analysis of electricity bills for each of the health department's offices from January 2010 through December 2013 shows the agency was billed a total of $18,974 in the two years after the solar panels were installed, compared with $25,992 in the two years prior.
If the department continues to see a $7,018 savings every two years, it would take 17 more years to recoup the $67,000 price it paid for the solar panels. The agency obtained a $60,000 state grant to cover the rest of the $127,000 project.
Iroquois County Board Chairman Rod Copas said the health board in February made its final $30,000 payment on a loan it received to pay for its portion of the solar panels' cost.
Copas, who also serves on the board of health, does not think it was money well spent.
"The board of health called it a 'great investment' and a 'budget-neutral' issue," Copas said, referring to statements made by the board of health last year. "That's an amazing thing to me — that you spend $60,000 of Iroquois and Ford taxpayer money, and you're going to generate this little bit of dollars.
"And I still haven't understood what the benefit to public health is (by buying solar panels). I'm still trying to figure out that one. I think the only benefit was to the wallets of a couple of people who benefitted immensely from it."
Copas was referring to Corbett's much-criticized decision in 2011 to award the contract for the installation of the solar panels to CMS Renewables Inc., a company owned by the husband of health department spokesman and Freedom of Information Act officer Julie Clark. Information obtained by the Paxton Record through FOIA requests shows the contract was awarded despite CMS Renewables never submitting a bid — and without a public bid opening or the board of health voting to award the contract.
In response to concerns Copas raised last year about the project, the board of health issued a prepared statement, saying "this openly bidded project was installed in a budget-neutral manner by utilizing grant monies and a carefully selected financing package."
The board of health added that "budget-neutral" means "no significant additional cost above average estimated electricity costs."
Before the agency installed the solar panels, the maker of the equipment had estimated a "conservative annual power bill savings" of about $2,000 for each of the two systems, according to e-mails from the health department that were obtained by the Record. The same email, from Day & Night Solar, estimated a "conservative annual production" of about 20,000 kilowatt-hours per system.
According to monthly Ameren Illinois electricity bills for each office, the actual cost savings and decline in electricity usage both have not quite achieved those "conservative" estimates.
The Paxton office's annual electricity costs fell from $3,000 in 2011 to $1,782 in 2012 to $1,230 in 2013. The Watseka office's total also fell, from $10,201 in 2011 to $8,001 in 2012 and $7,959 in 2013.
The Paxton office's annual kilowatt-hour usage dropped by 9,943 in the first year after the panels were installed, then fell by an additional 405 last year. The Watseka office's yearly total fell by 10,352 in 2012 and 17,707 more in 2013.
Meanwhile, Copas said his own analysis of the health department's bills show a savings of just $350 for the Watseka office per year.
"From everything we can tell ... it produces about $300 a year in Iroquois County," Copas said. "The Ford County one is much better."
Corbett declined to discuss the solar-panel savings prior to his contract as administrator being bought out last fall by the board of health.
Both solar-panel systems are expected to be sold, possibly through auction, in preparation for dividing the bi-county health department's assets between Ford and Iroquois counties prior to the agency's dissolution this summer.
Pricey solar panels have brought down annual electricity costs at two Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department buildings, but not nearly as dramatically as officials promised.