Sparta schools join solar project
By JESSICA MASULLI REYES
SPARTA — Sparta public school students will soon see solar panels popping up on top of and around their schools.
The Sparta Board of Education unanimously voted on Monday night to join Sussex County’s solar program, which will install solar panels at 10 schools and several other buildings in the county. The district pays nothing to join, and will see about $60,000 a year in cost savings.
In total, the district is going to have about 46 percent of its power coming from solar, or about 1.3 megawatts, according to Joseph Santaiti, a representative of Gabel Associates, the county’s energy consultant for the project.
Santaiti told the board that three different types of panel installations are being proposed at Alpine School, Helen Morgan School, Sparta Middle School and Sparta High School. Engineers who went to each site did not recommend installing at Mohawk Avenue School. The types of panels and energy savings at each location are:
-Alpine School- rooftop and parking lot canopies, 86 percent of power from solar
-Helen Morgan School- rooftop only, 50 percent of power from solar
-Sparta Middle School- rooftop, ground mount and parking lot canopies, 36 percent of power from solar
-Sparta High School- rooftop only, 12 percent of power from solar
“We look at sites with roofs that are 10 years or less in age and in good condition since this will be a 15-year purchase agreement,” Santaiti said about why rooftop panels are not an option at Mohawk Avenue School.
Sparta was asked a few years ago to join the county’s solar program. The district initially decided to not use the county’s program, but instead to look at installing solar for itself. However, the board decided that the county’s program, which is still open to schools and municipalities, was a better and more cost effective fit.
“We had originally looked at solar two years ago,” Board member Kevin Pollison said. “A firm gave us a presentation about it. We would have to go to a referendum to the people of Sparta and make a case that they should spend this money to save this money over here. With (the county’s solar program), we don’t go to taxpayers; we don’t ask their permission to vote on this because we are accruing, on their behalf, no risk.”
The solar program is sponsored by the county through the efforts of the Morris County Improvement Authority. The authority sells the bonds for the developers, SunLight General Capital and Power Partners MasTech.
The developers own the panels and other equipment and pay for its installation. The developers also make the bond payments, while the schools and municipalities who have joined buy the electricity produced from the panels at a set rate, which is much less than what is available through the local utility.
The developers get working capital for the project at municipal interest rates and become eligible for various state and federal renewable energy rebates and credits.
The Sparta board approved a 15-year agreement where they will purchase the power generated from the solar panels at a fixed rate of 9.35 cents per kilowatt hour, with a 3 percent escalation each year.
The board asked what the risks or exposures are in this agreement, but Santaiti said that the only rules are that the school buy power generated from the system and that the system must be in operation for 15 years.
Santaiti also told the board that there will be an educational component to this project since a solar kiosk will be put in a school. Students will also be able to see real-time production numbers and energy savings from the school’s panels online.
The county is moving fast to install the panels at all sites. Santaiti expects that the developer will work at the four sites in Sparta simultaneously and quickly.
“The weather is rapidly approaching,” he said. “The change in the weather (is causing us to) try to fast-track it. The objective is to try to get as much of it installed before the weather changes.”
Work has already begun at several other sites around the county, including at the parking lot of Kittatinny High School, Merriam Avenue School and Sussex County Community College. Besides the 10 schools that have joined the program, the county’s Wheatsworth Building, the Fredon Civic Center and Newton Wastewater Treatment Plan are also involved.