A few acres of farmland west of town could be the future of Celina and the lake upon which it depends.

Officials broke ground Thursday on what will eventually be the Celina Renewable Energy Center, a project that will house and fund efforts to both cheap energy for the city’s residents and clean out troubled Grand Lake St. Marys. When it’s finished, it will include 20 acres of solar panels to provide power to the city and cash to pay for dredging of the lake and an anaerobic digester plant that will actually turn that sediment into more electricity.

"This is a big day. This is a historic day. This is the only installation like this in the world, as far as I know," said Greg Kuss, president and founder of SolarVision, the city’s partner on the project.

The first phase of the project is expected to be completed in the next six months and will include a 20 acre solar field capable of generating 3 megawatts of electricity. By the final phase, the plant will grow to 30 acres and produce 5 megawatts, enough to provide 3 percent to 5 percent of the city’s electricity.

In addition to the solar field, the center will include a biogas plant, lake sediment ponds and a man-made wetlands, all developed to take on the real purpose of the pro ject, to clean up Grand Lake and help keep it that way.

"This all began with us asking what could we do that would help the lake. We started looking at multifaceted plans," said Kent Bryan, planning and economic development director for Celina. "The solar [project] is the catalyst to create revenue to fund the biogas program and sediment ponds. This will generate revenue to perpetuate the project for years to come."

The project began just eight months ago when Bryan and his staffers began looking at big-picture ways to pay for cleaning up Grand Lake, long troubled by watershed runoff and blue-green algae blooms that have made the lake unsuitable for recreation. They eventually paired up with SolarVision, a Westerville-based company with 12 solar projects in the works that was searching for places to build solar fields. Together, they worked out a plan that allows both parties to get what they want.

SolarVision has paid Celina $130,000 in solar licensing fees to fund the purchase of the land and other city work on the site. The company will pay to install the about 12,000 solar panels and other infrastructure.

Alongside the solar field will be an anaerobic digester, which will allow the city to process algae trucked in from Grand Lake and manure from the lake’s watershed into a biogas product that can be used for electric power generation. There will also be settlement ponds — places the settlement dredges from the lake can be stored — and a wetlands to provide a natural runoff barrier between the site and the lake.

Kuss said fitting all those elements together, and figuring out how to make them work for everybody’s good, was an impressive trick for what most people would consider a small town.

"For a city of 10,000 people, you think mighty big," he told the crowd gathered for the opening

Celina has agreed to purchase the electricity generated at the site, which would ultimately be enough to power as many as 600 homes, Kuss said.

The center got a big boost from the federal government. About 30 percent of the cost came from a federal Investment Tax Credit and another 15 percent to 20 percent was funded by a New Market Credit. Federal funding has helped reduce the expense of manufacturing panels and other alternative energy products and is key to making solar energy profitable, Kuss said.

"Solar is an expensive type of energy, but in the last two years the cost of these [panels] has gone down 50 percent and we have been told it will go down another 10 percent this fall. So all that government help is for a reason," Kuss said.

(Source: The Lima News)trackingBy Bart Mills, The Lima News, Ohio