Local school district exploring using solar energy
March 5, 2012
HANOVER — A handful of Licking County school districts are exploring using solar energy to provide a portion of their electricity.
The solar fields, which still are under negotiation, would supply a portion of electricity to one to three schools in the Lakewood, Licking Valley, Northridge and Southwest Licking school districts. Granville also has been exploring using solar power since at least 2010.
“Obviously, you look at every possible way to cut costs you can,” Lakewood Superintendent Jay Gault said. “It was going to be huge money we were going to saving over a 20-year period.”
Savings are estimated at anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million in a 20-year period for the districts. Actual savings will be dependent on negotiations and electricity prices with American Electric Power.
The power company’s rates were increased earlier this year, but this past week the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio reversed its ruling on the increase.
Power payments to AEP can be volatile and can change at any moment, while the solar agreements call for fixed increases.
“Part of the benefit of these power purchase agreements for the customer is, they’ve got an electric budget, and they’ve got it set,” said Eric Zimmer, founder and CEO of Tipping Point, a Columbus company that specializes in installing solar panels.
Schools, like small businesses and residential customers, were hit hard by AEP rate increases earlier this year.
February’s electric bill for Licking Valley Elementary School cost the district $1,700 more than the previous February, despite warmer temperatures. The district spent $112,000 to power the elementary school last year.
If the district moves forward with its solar plans, they would only affect the elementary school, which is the only building on AEP. The rest are on Energy Cooperative power.
Licking Valley is working out a power purchase agreement with Tipping Point.
“They think that now they can save us close to $1 million during the 20-year period,” Superintendent Dave Hile said. “If they can do that, then it would be a matter of a few months in terms of getting our agreement in place.”
Exact savings are dependent on what the current and future AEP rates are.
“The way the AEP rates are structured impacts how much our customers will save,” Zimmer said. “We set rates that we knew would save our customers some money.”
How it works
Companies like Tipping Point pool investors to pay upfront and maintenance costs for the solar fields, so they don’t cost districts or government entities anything.
“The challenge for a lot of municipalities and school districts, they are capital-constrained,” Zimmer said. “The school districts agree to buy power from the solar system at a set rate for a set period of time. Those panels are owned by somebody else.”
At Southwest Licking, Tipping Point found an outside investor in Massachusetts-based Altus Power Funds to fund construction of a solar field at a cost of $2.5 million to $3 million.
The payback for investors comes mainly in tax credits, Zimmer said, but also from the fees paid throughout the contract.
If the district’s board of education agrees to the contract March 15, Southwest Licking would be locked into a fixed electricity rate for 20 years.
Savings have been estimated at $600,000 at the high school, which would be the only district building on solar power.
At the end of the contract, districts have three options, Zimmer said: Ask for the panels to be removed; extend the contract; or purchase the panels and receive free solar energy.
Where they stand
Of the districts in Licking County that are looking into solar energy, Southwest Licking is the closest to taking action. District officials hope solar panels can be operational by summertime to get the maximum benefit from the sun.
Lakewood’s board of education met with Tipping Point last week to discuss options. Gault said the district is unsure how much could be saved at this point because of the uncertainty of AEP prices.
But he does think an agreement could happen in the next couple of months. The panels are set to go up in a field far behind Jackson Intermediate School and would power the intermediate, middle and high schools.
“I don’t think we’re far off,” Gault said. “I’m hoping to see that field of solar panels go up this summer.”
Licking Valley administrators are in negotiations with Tipping Point.
Granville voted to explore solar options in 2010 with a Westerville company, SolarVision, and still is evaluating.
Northridge also continues to look into solar options, which could help power a portion of the district’s main campus, where the middle, high and intermediate schools currently sit, Superintendent John Shepard said earlier this year.
The district will discuss the solar project again during a special board meeting at 6:30 p.m. today in the high school media center.
“We want to expedite the process so we don’t lose out on an opportunity for cost savings on our electric bills,” he said.
Seth Roy can be reached at (740) 328-8547 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Newark Advocate (http://www.newarkadvocate.com/article/20120305/NEWS01/203050301)