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$500,000 allocated to solar energy project

Published June 18. 2010 05:00PM

The Summit Hill Water Authority has reached another milestone in its quest to be the first municipal authority in Pennsylvania powered by solar energy.

Chairman John "Chet" Michalik announced at Tuesday night's meeting the authority received confirmation it will be allocated $500,000 from PPL's rebate program toward the construction of their solar array.

"This is one of the happiest days we have had in a long time," Michalik said upon opening the meeting. "We have one year to finish the project, but we have $500,000 allocated toward our solar energy project."

Michalik spearheaded this effort to build a photovoltaic array on land in the hilltop community to power the municipal authority's physical plant and the borough office building. At one point, he engaged the Summit Hill Borough Council to join in the project to power all of the community's municipal needs including the parks, lights and buildings, but the borough was unable to financially partner with them due to ongoing issues with the building construction. At that point the project was scaled back to the original scope, but the door is open to allow it to be expanded when the borough is ready.

Michalik said current estimates are that the solar field will generate enough to pay for all of the authority's electricity needs, as well as generate up to an extra $4,500 per month, which Michalik said will be allocated for long-needed infrastructure upgrades and repairs.

"It costs up to half a million dollars to replace the mains in just a few blocks of the town and they are long overdue to be repaired. This will be a blessing for us and a savings for our customers," Michalik said.

He past efforts to obtain funding with Pennvest failed due to its judgment that the borough's rates are too low.

"We are financially sound and I don't think it is fair for us to have to drastically raise our rates to qualify for a loan," he said. "We increased our minimum charge about a dollar each of the past two years to responsibly allocate funds for repairs. People can't afford large increases and if we can run the water system responsibly for what we are charging, then I don't see the need to raise them just because someone thinks we do not charge enough."

Michalik believes that with the money the project will generate, Summit Hill's customers won't need to worry about rising rates to effect repairs.

"We have some of the most affordable rates in the area," he said, "and we strive to provide the best service we can."

While this initial funding is now available for the next year, Michalik also announced the authority's application for a Pennsylvania Economic Development Association grant was submitted Tuesday morning.

"The PEDA grant is for nonprofit and municipal organizations to receive up to another $500,000 for construction costs," he said, adding that if the authority also receives this grant it will greatly reduce the amount of money it would need to borrow to pay the upfront costs.

The project is estimated to cost over a million dollars. The remainder of the money will be obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a low interest loan.

The recent sale of LC&N land is another hurdle that was unexpected for the authority. LC&N originally agreed to lease the acreage on the plateau at the southwestern edge of the town across from St. Joseph's Church for the project at a cost of $100 a month for 29 years, but with the sale of the land to the Bruce and Robbie Toll Foundation, officials need to find out if the new owners will honor the terms of the lease.

"We were told if the PPL grant was approved to let them know and they would discuss their position with us," Michalik said, adding that there are alternate sites if needed, but he was hoping they could do business with the new owners.

The goal is to begin construction by the end of the summer.

In other business, the authority unanimously appointed office manager Michele Toniatti as the "Right to Know" officer as mandated by new state regulations. Michalik said when he learned of the requirement he temporarily named her as the officer, but it needed to be done officially by the board.

The board is also tentatively planning to have an open house at the office and plant in September so the public can see how water is pumped, processed and shipped to town as well as the facilities which are not normally open to the public.

More information will be provided in coming months.

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