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School Solar Power Plan Called Environmental, Cash Friendly

Initiative would have panels on roofs by September, saving schools millions over next decade.

If all goes to plan, student arriving for the first day of school this September will be greeted with solar panels layered on Belmont schools roofs, providing the town with environmentally-positive energy and the school department with millions of dollars in savings over the next decade.

And the beauty of the project concocted by the Belmont Solar Initiative is it would not cost Belmont a penny in capital while allowing the schools to keep approximately $2.6 million.

The plan to generate nearly a million-and-a-half kilowatt hour of energy annually from the town's six schools – the High School, Chenery Middle School and the four elementary schools – was presented to the Belmont School Committee Tuesday night, Jan. 24, by longtime environmental campaigner and Belmont Energy Committee co-chairman Roger Colton and Sustainable Belmont Chairman John Kolterman, both who head the Belmont Solar Initiative.

The plan to install solar photovoltaic system on school and other town buildings has been advocated since the release two years ago of the Belmont Climate Action Plan when Town Meeting endorsed reducing the town's carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050.

"What we are proposing is not new concept," said Colton. "We are taking one of the recommendations and move it to implementation."

Under the plan, the six schools system would cut carbon dioxide by 1.3 million pounds. That would be like reducing vehicle trips in New England by 1.7 million miles.

While not calling the plan a total solution to cutting carbon and other chemicals in Belmont, Colton said he'd take the level of reduction "any day."

The plan presented Tuesday would involve the school department entering into a power purchase agreement. Rather than buying panels and run the system itself, the schools would "host" the system and purchase the electricity from the panels' owner and or operator.

Colton said being the system's host is made affordable for the panels owner by a series of federal and state solar power incentives including tax credits, a large first-year depreciation, state tax exemptions and a form of renewable energy certificate known as Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, that can be sold and traded or bartered on a market.

The schools would see direct cost savings with the reduction of electrical expenses from the power generated on-site at the full retail rate to the Belmont Municipal Light Department.

In addition, any "extra" energy produced from the system will be "returned" to the Light Department at the wholesale generation rate, reducing school department expenses further.

"This could be oodles of money," said Colton of the "this stream of revenue." 

$2.6 million in a decade

While his initial calculations are $2.6 million over 10 years, "we have seen (similar environmental systems) become more valuable over time and I suspect that is what will happen here," said Colton.

"We are asking (the School Committee) to pursue a project that is environmentally and financially friendly," said Colton.

The School Committee will not need to look far to find someone experienced in converting roof tops to energy power plants. Interim Belmont School Superintendent Thomas Kingston oversaw the installation of solar power systems on Chelsea schools when he headed that school system earlier this decade.

"It was a success in Chelsea," said Kingston. While the system did not produce a substantial savings upfront, over time "the system did generate a significant amount to the bottom line," he said.

Furthermore, the system will have an educational component as students will be able to view instruments that show the power produced and consumed in kiosks in a central location as well as working panels located in parking lots; a concept that Kingston said was quite successful in Chelsea.

The Solar Initiative was not asking the School Committee to approve the plan Tuesday but only to approve the creation of a nine-member Belmont Solar Oversight Committee that will review the project and set up a timeline for its installation.

Under his ambitious time line, Colton foresees approval from the School Committee and the Belmont Board of Selectmen in the next few weeks to OK the Oversight group which will release a RFP (request for proposal) to interested firms willing to "host" the system.

He sees responses to the proposal by mid-May and a contract signed a month later with construction and installation from July to October of this year.

But Colton said if all goes well and "we all work hard," schools will have the panels up "before the kids are back to school."

"That would be extraordinarily exciting," said Colton.

Matt Sullivan January 25, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Good job Roger! I agree with you 100% on this. I was thinking about bringing this up before the BOS and School Committee but you beat me to it..
Susan Moran January 25, 2012 at 07:05 PM
Bravo Mr. Colter, Bravo Mr Kolterman, Bravo Superintendant Kingston, Bravo Belmont Solar Initiative, and Bravo Belmont! Thank you folks so much for your advocacy and your sweat equity, getting this done. Excellent steps into the 3rd Industrial Revolution for our town! What's next? Fire Stations? Police Station? Keepagoin'! I hope that soon, most of our buildings and homes will have solar panels, feeding into the grid. Susan Moran
PJ Looney January 25, 2012 at 08:13 PM
At face value this does seem like a gift. One of my questions is what impact if any does this have on my electric bill? My developing knowledge of the utility business is the rate charged includes the cost of purchasing the power and the cost of delivering the power. If the Schools and other Town buildings use this new source of power it means the BMLD doesn't need to order as much power but they still need to maintain the existing delivery network and pay the workers. I would think the panels would be beneficial in the Summertime especially during peak usage heatwaves but I suspect that would also eat into overall operating revenue. In other words is this real savings or are we just shifting half or more of the costs from the tax levy to the electric bill which isn't tax deductible. It also opens up the question of how would this impact the need for a new Substation?
Haskell Werlin January 25, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Much of the revenue derived from the ppa are in the form of solar renewable energy credits (SRECS) so the muni is hardly losing much revenue but in fact is not needing to purchase peak power on hot sunny days when spot market electricity is most expensive. BMLD should be encouraging demand reduction, efficiency and renewables to reduce peak loads as much as possible !
John Bowe January 25, 2012 at 09:19 PM
This is excellent, from environmental and financial views, and as an example / pilot so others can see how it goes before jumping in. I don't see much prospect for other town buildings - firestations, yes; DPW and current police HQ are in too-bad shape, but would have been good choices. I can't imagine the Historic District Commission even considering that for town hall complex. Check out the ground-level photovoltaic array at Habitat, next to the garden as you go up the driveway, on the right.
roger colton January 25, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Three comments, PJ. (1) there is little "lost revenue." Most lost revenue is avoided energy costs. In addition, under BMLD policies, solar power will avoid the kWh charge but not the demand charge. Even more importantly, BMLD will receive a new offsetting stream of revenue from ISO-New England for contributing to a reduction in regional peak demand. The resulting NET "lost revenue" is "noise" (a few tens of thousands of dollars in a multi-million dollaw BMLD budget). The solar project has NO impact on the proposed new substation, for two reasons. First, the need for the substation is driven largely by the fact that our existing infrastructure is old and in need of replacement. Second, strangely, BMLD's peak demand is between 6:30 and 8:30 at night, well after solar panels produce power. We did a study last summer of the impact of the solar project on the new substation and found no impact.
roger colton January 25, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Check out not only Habitat, but check out the new rooftop panels on the Belmont Hill School. Belmont Hill's arrays just began producing electricity this past Monday (as in two days ago)! The proposal is for the schools, the Fire Stations, and perhaps the Beech Street Center. The DPW yard buildings will likely need to be replaced before the end of a PPA. The Town Hall and Homer Building will not be included both because of their historic nature and because their roofs are not conducive to solar panels. We will certainly push to incorporate solar panels into plans for a new Library (if any) and into plans for a new BHS "science wing" (and, indeed, into plans for the new substation, if possible). The more rooftop space we can commit, the cheaper it is for the Town/BPS to do.
PJ Looney January 25, 2012 at 10:42 PM
Thanks Roger. That makes it more appealing.
Allison Colton January 26, 2012 at 07:39 AM
nice tie dad. :)

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