North Vernon preparing to convert to solar power

NORTH VERNON — The process of installing solar energy technology to power North Vernon’s city buildings, street lights and traffic signals is beginning.

The project is estimated to cost $5.399 million dollars and will make North Vernon the first city government in Indiana to be completely powered by solar energy, city officials said.

“I think everyone in the room thought it was the craziest idea they had ever heard the first time this project was presented to the city council but, in well less than a year, this thing is ready to go. I don’t think I have ever seen anything move in such a short time from an extremely negative initial reaction to being a fully approved project,” said North Vernon Clerk Treasurer Shawn Gerkin.

The path to solar energy for North Vernon was first announced at the Jennings County Public Library when library director Mary Hougland converted the facility to solar energy in 2014.

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After seeing the success at the library, members of the North Vernon Airport board of directors spoke to Mayor Mike Ochs about converting the airport to solar energy. “I asked them to wait to see if we could convert all of the city buildings to solar at the same time,” said Ochs.

The idea of converting all city-owned buildings to solar energy was first presented to the city council in late 2016 and was approved in early April.

Johnson-Melloh Solutions was selected to convert the city buildings. Johnson-Melloh Solutions is the same company that did the work at the library and it is also the company that installed the solar energy system at the Indianapolis airport.

Work to convert the more than 90 meters in city buildings to solar energy was temporarily delayed because of concerns in initial contracts. Ochs explained the North Vernon City Attorney Larry Greathouse spotted a few details that might have increased the city’s future debt and more time was needed.

“Now, there will be no new taxes and no bond and we are going to save a ton of money on this thanks to Larry Greathouse, Shawn Gerkin and the people at MainSource Bank,” Ochs said.

The cost of the conversion is being covered by a loan that will be paid for with savings on the city’s energy costs, the mayor said.

“I don’t think anyone worked harder than Shawn (Gerkin) on this. He worked with MainSource to bring the loan’s interest rate down from 3.65 percent for 18 years to 3.45 percent interest for 16 years and that will save the city a bunch of money.”

“Many people worked very hard to pull this together. We may go at each other at election time but once the election is over, we try to work together to get things done,” said Gerkin. “That’s the only way to get things done. Maybe people don’t think of North Vernon as a very forward-thinking community, but this solar energy project is going to put us way ahead of other communities and it does show we can get things done down here,” he said.