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A Longer Wait for Solar-Powered Schools

Initiative to place solar panels to school roofs will miss summer construction season.

The first day of school in Belmont this coming September will have happy parents, anxious students and eager teachers.

What the day won't have was the anticipated array of solar panels on each school roof to help power the district's half-dozen buildings.

The announcement that the year-long push to bring green technology to Belmont schools will miss the opening of the school year "hurts me to my soul," said Roger Colton who updated the at its Tuesday night, May 8, meeting.

The co-chairman of the Belmont Energy Committee, which was the chief driver of the Belmont Solar Initiative to install photovoltaic panels on school buildings, said that while the process is behind schedule, it was "not dramatically so."

The plan is out of the realm of ideas and suggests and now in the realm of actual implementation, said Colton. 

It will now be up to the School District to determine how the installation work will be completed with students in the buildings. 

"So it is how to mix kids and construction," Colton asked the board. "Can you mix these? I don't know." 

The school department does has some experience with an active construction site, in this case on top of buildings, during the school year. The new Roger Wellington Elementary School required several months of additional finishing work after its official opening this past September. Work was performed at the Orchard Street location at night during the week and on weekends. In addition, the workers were required to wear identification when were they were on the site. 

While he was unable to make a definitive estimate on a time frame for the installation, Colton noted that placing solar panels on the athletic complex at the Belmont Hill School took approximately six weeks. 

But while it will miss its scheduled fall unveiling, the Initiative is just about ready to release the Request for Proposal to solar firms to complete for the contract. 

"We are on the cusp of having the RFP ready," said Colton who said the proposal and contract were reviewed by two sets of consultants including Watertown's Cadmus Group, owned by Belmont Selectman Ralph Jones who did the analysis on a pro bono basis. 

The RFP could have an upside on future town capital expenditures, said Colton. As part of the RFP, the town will allow the solar firms to increase their portion of the power purchase agreement if they agree to upgrade and repair the roofs and take responsibility for that section of the roof over the 20-year life of the contract. 

And it will only be school buildings which will be considered for solar panels this go around as the initiative dropped all municipal-owned properties for several reasons, said Colton.

In some cases, the roofs were not capable to place panels on (the Beech Street Center), is structurally unable to support the infrastructure (the Skating Rink) or have existing construction defects such as with the Fire Department buildings. 

In addition, each school poises its own challenges, While the Wellington, Winn Brook Elementary and Chenery Middle School "are ready to go and waiting," said Colton – others will require careful preparation; some due to age such as the Butler Elementary or with infrastructure issues such as the number of vents and pipes on the High School's roof. 

The delay in placing the panels on the roof does not prevent a good deal of preparation work to occur. Colton said the panels and other hardware can be placed on the roof before the schools open. In addition, scaffolding on the outside of the building to allow access on the roof can also be constructed. 

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