Maryville utility leaders read the energy tea leaves and crunched the power numbers and now they’re considering a decision that could change the city forever: bring solar power to their grid.

Public Utility Director Baron Swafford introduced the idea to council members in an August work session and spoke about his vision with The Daily Times last week.

“It is a process to find what I would call a partner,” Swafford explained, discussing how, within the next two weeks, his department will start the hunt for a solar energy provider with a request for quotation, or RFQ.

He’s not looking to buy equipment, purchase land or hire workers. “The only thing that comes out of this is a purchase of power agreement,” Swafford said.

That means he’s just looking for someone to buy power from.

But for the first time in the city’s history, the source of that power would be the sun. Swafford explained the city is looking for companies to build a solar array in Blount and start selling megawatts to limited areas in Maryville.

That’s because Maryville Electric is in a new 20-year contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the past, the city was on a rolling 10-year contract. But when TVA gave local power providers an option to move to the 20-year option, it also gave Maryville some power sourcing flexibility.

Solar is part of that flexibility. Power distributors on this new contract can pull 5% of their power from renewable sources. Though clean energy advocates have decried this number as too small to make significant advances in a move toward environmental sustainability, Swafford said it may be a good fiscal move for the city.

“There’s no obligation to do this,” he explained. “This is strictly an opportunity because TVA introduced this flexibility amendment. ... It’s worth a look to see, what are the economic results? Is there savings? The people I’ve talked to say ‘Yes there is,’ especially if you do it in the form of a purchase power agreement where you don’t have anything invested.”

But there are a lot of unknowns, he said. Actually setting up solar arrays on the Maryville system would involve finding land, finding a builder and getting a company to manage and sell the power.

Swafford said one of the question marks in this deal is property.

“The biggest thing that would keep this from moving forward is finding a place to put it,” he said. “Maryville’s system is very compact: It’s very small, very dense.” He estimated the department is looking for a solar array that could supply 4.4 megawatts of power to the system, but that would need a significant amount of space.

“Find me 40 acres pretty close inside the city limits or right outside the city limits that doesn’t have something sitting on it,” he said, adding he thinks what may ultimately happen is kind of space compromise: splitting the project up.

That would mean finding smaller parcels of 5-8 acres to build several arrays, which are{span} a collection of multiple {/span}{span}solar{/span}{span} panels that generate electricity as a system{/span}.

Though land may be harder to find, Swafford said he is optimistic about finding a provider.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to find what we’re looking for,” he said, noting he’s already talked to two or three solar companies.

The price tag for such a project would be minimal for Maryville’s government. It wouldn’t even purchase the land for the project, Swafford said.

The only thing it wants to buy is the solar energy, if and when it starts flowing.

Maryville’s grid serves more than 20,000 residences and businesses in the city limits, in Rockford and in other Blount County regions.

Follow @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter for more from city government reporter Andrew Jones.

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