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Despite frequent rains and occasional hail, Nebraska’s first commercial solar energy project is on track to begin harvesting sunlight for Lincoln Electric System by June 20.

On a recent afternoon, crews stood in mud bolting photovoltaic panels on top of metal frames. Once complete, the solar power system will wake each morning with the sun and track it across the sky converting light to electricity.

The nearly 5 megawatt facility sits on a portion of a 46-acre site along a gravel portion of West Holdrege near Northwest 75th Street. The usable output of the array will be about 3.6 megawatts, capable of powering about 900 Lincoln homes, said LES spokeswoman Erin Hergott.

It’s flanked by farm fields and center pivot irrigation systems. Designed to withstand Midwest weather, the panels survived the hail earlier this month without issue.

The new community solar project is owned by developer Enerparc and LES will buy solar power from the company.

The solar farm likely will not be LES’s most cost-effective program, but it has broad community support.

“The reason we have a solar project is because people asked for it,” said Marilyn McNabb, who left LES’s citizen board in January.

And then those people put up money, in part, to make it happen.

More than 1,200 LES customers signed up to voluntarily pay a little extra on their monthly bill to support solar efforts. LES customers are contributing $6,286 a month through the SunShares program. As of the end of April, more than $100,000 had been contributed by participants.

SunShares gives residents and businesses unable to put up their own solar panels a chance to invest in reducing Lincoln’s carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels, a major contributor to global warming.

It also gives LES a chance to learn the ins and outs of bringing solar into its portfolio on a manageable scale.

Clint Bruhn, a resource and transmission planning engineer with LES, called the Holdrege Street project a stepping stone to something more advanced and an opportunity to judge ratepayers’ interest in the technology.

While actual construction will take only three months, getting work started took a year longer than LES initially expected. The utility last year approved a request by the original developer, Coronal Development Services, to delay the project so it could resolve financing and construction issues.

Coronal then transferred the project to Enerparc Inc., a company with headquarters in Oakland, California, and Hamburg, Germany. LES officials said Coronal had planned to transfer ownership all along and only expected to be involved in the project during the initial stages.

Enerparc hired Denver-based New Energy Structures Company to build the facility.

Enerparc will own and operate the solar farm and has a 20-year contract to sell power to LES with a five-year extension option.

LES has declined to say how much it will pay for the electricity or how the rate will compare to the cost of fossil fuel-produced electricity or other renewable sources like wind.

Enerparc said the project cost $8.9 million. The company has declined to give interviews about the project until after it is complete.

Planning for an opening ceremony is in the works, although it’s unknown whether that would happen at the site of the solar array or whether tours will be given due to safety concerns.

“Since it is not an LES facility, the details of public tours will need to be determined after construction is completed. LES will do its best to accommodate requests, but will need to work with Enerparc as this will be a live generating facility,” Hergott said in an email.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com.

 On Twitter @ljsbergin.

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