Solar Power at the Middle and High School
How and Why We Did It
By George Wood, Superintendent of Schools
When I became superintendent one of the projects I took on was trying to find out if we could power our schools with solar energy. I met with a number of solar companies, consultants, and energy companies. The first thing I learned was that, unfortunately, our elementary school roofs did not have enough available square footage to make a solar installation practical. Also, my idea that we install panels over the parking lots, like they have at the Athens Recreation Center, was a very expensive and also not feasible alternative. However, our middle and high school roofs were found to be large enough to generate significant power at an affordable rate.
The next questions were how much power could a solar installation generate and how could it be paid for?
The first question was answered for me by engineers at Third Sun Solar in Athens. Through research and collaboration with the utility, it was determined that the existing electrical infrastructure would support a solar system sized to replace up to 70% of the school’s annual power needs. This is because the school will still be hooked to the energy grid and, even though on some days we will generate more power than necessary, we need to stay hooked to the grid for days when there is less, or inconsistent solar energy production.
Now, how to pay for it. While we finished all the engineering studies on the solar plant three years ago, it took us three more years to find funding for the system.
Basically, it worked like this. An outside company is funding the bulk of the cost of the plant. This is very common for solar with public entities, as for-profit companies can monetize the value of the 30% federal tax credit, while public entities, such as schools, would not be able to do so. They will own the plant and we will buy energy from them at a reduced cost. We also decided to put in $400,000 of district funds to reduce the cost of the electricity we will be purchasing and speed up the buy-back option on the plant. This is money that is in our district reserve account and cannot be used for annual expenses (such as salaries, etc.). But by using this money to reduce the cost of the solar installation, we will see reduced annual costs, accelerate our path to ownership and have more money for annual expenses.
Let me boil this all down into a number of reasons this installation is a big win for our school district.
1. Current Energy Savings: Annually the secondary school campus uses 1,288,992 kWh (Kilowatt hours) of electricity. We will now be purchasing 850,000 -900,000kWh of that total from clean solar power on our roof at a price that is 3 cents per kWh less expensive than what we are currently paying. Because the school made an up-front investment, we are able to pay approximately half the price we would otherwise have to pay for power generated by the solar array. This results in approximately $20,000 per year savings in electricity costs for the next seven years, and significantly more savings expected in years 8 and after. This is money we can now use for annual costs such as salaries, books, etc., instead of electric bills.
2. Future Energy Savings: Because we invested up front in year eight of the project the district has the ability to purchase the entire power plant for what its then current value. Due to the fact that the system will be 8 years old and would have to be removed from the roof by a buyer, the system will be worth very little to an outside buyer. Thus, we could purchase the system for a small investment and then, 70% of our power would be FREE as it is our system, a savings of over $100,000 per year at current rates. Alternatively, we could simply negotiate a lower price for electricity from the solar installation and allow the company to keep running it.
3. Protecting our roofs: Since the solar installation covers all of the roof surface and will prevent wear and tear due to solar rays, hail, etc. the roofs will last longer.
4. Protection our environment: Now 70% of the power consumed at the campus will be from a renewable, non-polluting source, the sun. Further, any energy we generate beyond what we use will be put back into the grid, providing clean energy to the grid.
5. Providing jobs: The project is being carried out by a local contractor, Third Sun Solar. There are dozens of workers on the project that live in and around the area and are receiving good wages for their good work.
6. Education: Teachers will be able to use the power plant as a teaching tool about how solar energy works. Additionally, the high school has interns who have worked on this project with Third Sun Solar.
We save money, can save even more money in the future, protect our infrastructure and our environment, provide local jobs and educational experiences—good news all the way around.
We are happy to have visitors see the plant (though once it is up it will be so low to the roof line you will not be able to see it well) and welcome your questions.