Newberry exits solar project, approves youth council

Newberry City Hall
Photo by Suzette Cook

The Newberry City Commission voted 3-1 at a regular meeting on Monday to back out of a solar project with the Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA) that would have provided half a megawatt of solar power to the city. 

The commission had approved the contract for one megawatt (MW) of power in FMPA’s solar project in 2019, divided across two projects in FMPA’s Phase 2: Whistling Duck and Rice Creek. 

The whole project included participation from 13 cities committed to 149 MWs of solar energy. 

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The project was underway when COVID-19 caused supply chain constraints, and the developer, Origis Energy, no longer expects to be able to offer the same energy prices as it originally proposed. 

Susan Schumann, FMPA’s public relations and external affairs manager, said the increase will bring the energy cost up from the projected Phase 2 pricing, to equal what Phase 3 pricing was meant to be. 

“Some of our members are okay with that,” Schumann told the commission. “They’re getting pressure from their customers or their conditions, just get solar that’s still a reasonable cost. And some of our members are saying, no, we signed up for very cheap solar, it’s not very cheap anymore.” 

Without a unanimous decision from the cities to either move forward or back out, Schumann said FMPA is instead reconfiguring the Whistling Duck application with Phase 3 sites, allowing cities the opportunity to opt out of the project with no penalty. 

Newberry’s one MW of solar power was to be split evenly between Whistling Duck and Rice Creek, so the city will still receive the half-MW from Rice Creek at the originally planned rate. Schumann said about half of the other cities have also backed out of the Whistling Duck project. 

The Whistling Duck project is expected to deliver energy at $53 per MW-hour, while the alternative, natural gas, will provide $39 – $56 energy, depending on whether it is purchased for $4 per d-therm or $6 per d-therm. Natural gas is currently below $2 per d-therm, and staff said the future is difficult to predict. 

Mayor Jordan Marlowe said the half-MW from Rice Creek still provides about 5% of Newberry’s electricity. 

“We’re still engaged in a diverse offering of solar, natural gas, different things,” Marlowe said. “The question here is, do we want to increase that from 5% to 10%… for a cost that is comparable to what natural gas is right now.” 

Commissioner Ricky Coleman said the arrangement was a gamble, and that he expects natural gas rates to drop in coming years. 

City Manager Mike New said Newberry’s part in the project was small enough that, if the city had chosen to stay in, each resident would likely have seen an increase of less than $5. 

The vote to exit the agreement passed 3-1, with Commissioner Monty Farnsworth dissenting and Commissioner Mark Clark absent from the meeting. 

The Rice Creek project is expected to begin commercial operation at the end of the summer. 

Youth Council 

Newberry High School student Annah McGehee stood before the commission on Monday to request the formation of a youth council. 

McGehee said there are currently little to no civic engagement opportunities for the city’s youth, and that a youth council would encourage future leaders and help them help the community, as well as giving the commission insight from the city’s young citizens. 

“Today, you are looking at the bridge that can cross the gap between the next generation and the current leaders,” McGehee told the commission. “Together, you can sponsor the future, you can support and encourage the leaders of tomorrow.” 

Youth council members would need to be Newberry residents in grades 9-12, with a minimum 3.0 unweighted grade point average, who “represent the values and community of Newberry” and can attend meetings during a one-year term. 

McGehee originally proposed to have the youth council up and running by the beginning of the 2024-25 school year, but Marlowe recommended moving the timeline back to allow a year to hammer out details. 

The City Commission unanimously approved a motion to move forward with the youth council’s formation. 

Fire Assessment 

The City Commission also approved preliminary rates for the fire assessment in Fiscal Year 2025, a charge imposed on property to pay for fire protection services. 

The assessment has changed based on the types of calls the fire department receives, and based on how long and expensive each call is, depending on the property use category. 

The residential rate will remain the same, at $200 per dwelling unit. 

The commercial rate will rise from 17 cents per square foot to 24 cents per square foot. 

The industrial/warehouse rate has gone up from 3 cents per square foot to 25 cents per square foot. 

The institutional rate is to go down from 23 cents per square foot to 6 cents per square foot. 

As these rates are preliminary, the commission can choose to lower the rates at the final hearing in August, but it cannot change the rates to be any higher than what they approved this week. 

Government property, tax-exempt properties and those who demonstrate hardship can be exempt from the fire assessment. 

The motion to approve passed 3-1, with Farnsworth in dissent. 

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