With New Array, Cincinnati Is Placing Big Bets On Solar

The largest U.S. municipal solar array now powers the city’s government buildings.

If it’s a sunny summer day in southwest Ohio, chances are pretty good that Cincinnati’s city-owned buildings are running on renewable solar energy. The New Market Solar Array, located about 40 miles east in Highland County, is the size of 750 football fields and consists of 310,000 solar panels. It began operating in the spring and will generate 203,000 megawatt-hours of electricity a year—making it the largest municipally-led solar project in the country.

The city of Cincinnati’s new solar array in Highland County is operational.

Photograph by Justin Schafer

Michael Forrester, director of Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability, says those megawatts will power 25 percent of the city government’s overall operational need, and could also cover roughly 15 percent of the power needed to run homes that have opted into the city’s community choice alternative energy program. “Being a major city, we’re a major consumer of electricity,” he says, “so we need to do our part.”

The New Market Solar Array cost $125 million to build, but Cincinnati didn’t pay anything to construct it. Instead, the city entered into a power purchasing agreement with Hecate Energy, the project developer, agreeing to pay an annual fixed rate for 100 megawatts of electricity generated by the array for the next 20 years.

“Summer is when energy costs are the highest, so solar is a very good budget hedge,” Forrester says, adding that the deal should save the city at least $1.8 million in energy expenditures over the next 20 years.

All of this works because Ohio has a deregulated energy market. Public utility companies like Duke Energy own the electric transmission lines, but the electricity comes from many sources. Because the state used to have so many coal-powered plants along the Ohio River, southern Ohio already has an electricity superhighway crisscrossing the state that’s underutilized, Forrester says.

The groundbreaking New Market Solar project is being copied around the state and around the country, Forrester says. “We created a business model that had never been done before,” he says. “We cracked a nut that had never been cracked before.”

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