Solar deal boon to schools

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

Just
The Facts

Owned by

ST. ALBANS — Six of the seven schools in the Franklin West and Franklin Central supervisory unions are poised to save a collective $2.88 million on electricity over the next 20 years.

The savings are the result of joining a consortium of Vermont schools, all of which are customers of Green Mountain Power (GMP), to develop solar projects.

The three schools in Franklin West, which was among the group of eight supervisory unions that founded the consortium, are expected to save $61,165 annually. Those schools are Georgia Elementary and Middle School, Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, and Fletcher Elementary School.

Last month, Fairfield Elementary School, Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, and St. Albans City School also opted to join the consortium.

Savings at Fairfield were projected to be $6,000 annually, and Principal Jen Wood recommended they be used to support the outdoor classroom. The board unanimously authorized the supervisory union to sign an agreement with Competitive Energy Systems (CES), which is negotiating with solar developers on behalf of consortium members.

Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans will enjoy the greatest savings, $36,000 a year at the high school and $15,000 per year at the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center, for a projected total savings of $1.02 million over 20 years.

St. Albans City School and the St. Albans Town Educational Center (SATEC) have similar savings estimates of roughly $20,000 per year and $400,000 over 20 years.

The St. Albans Town School Board discussed the issue at multiple meetings, according to board minutes, but never voted on whether to join the consortium. There was an initial deadline for joining of Nov. 5.

How it works

The consortium originated with a grant from the state and the work of Norm Etkind of the Vermont Superintendent’s Association. Etkind brought together the members of the consortium who, after soliciting bids, hired CES to manage the process for them.

CES then went out to bid this summer for solar projects, based on the collective energy generation of the 12.7 million megawatts of power used by the eight originally participating supervisory unions, including Franklin West.

They received 11 proposals, and selected one from SunEdison.

SunEdison will build multiple solar projects in Vermont, including one at a former landfill in Milton, and provide the resulting power to GMP. GMP will then issue credits for that electricity to the member schools, in the form of a reduction in their energy bills.

The schools then pay SunEdison for those credits, minus 22 percent. Thus, the schools end up paying 22 percent less for their electricity than they would otherwise.

Each school will receive credits equaling 22 percent of 80 percent of their electric usage from the year before, to insure the credits they receive do not exceed 22 percent of their current bill.

There are no upfront costs for the schools.

CES is paid with a share of the electric credits received by each school from GMP.

Any tax credits or renewable energy credits will be used by the developer or CES, or sold by them.

The schools, explained Franklin Central Supervisory Union Business Manager Martha Gagne, cannot take advantage of tax credits as they pay no taxes.

Other projects

At the St. Albans Town School Board meeting, on Oct. 14, board members decided they needed more information. “My biggest concern is this is a contract that would lock out other proposals,” said chair Paul Bourbeau.

Under the agreement with CES, CES would be involved in any additional solar projects undertaken by member schools for the first two years of the agreement.

That was also a concern at city school, which had put its own request for proposals for a potential solar project on school property.

At a special meeting on Oct. 27, the board considered five solar alternatives, including two onsite projects.

Joining the consortium offered the greatest savings, and the board ultimately voted unanimously for that option. However, they wanted to ensure the school could still pursue onsite solar in the future.

Under the terms of the agreement with CES, the company would receive its management fee for any solar projects undertaken by the school within the next two years. The fee is a small percentage of any credits the school would receive from GMP for electricity generated. After two years have passed, the school could pursue any additional projects it wished without paying a fee to CES.

Keith Sampson, vice president for business development at CES, gave a presentation to school officials in April at which he said many schools are interested in having a small onsite project for educational purposes while also receiving the greater savings generated by large offsite projects. CES is willing to work with schools to do both, he indicated.

City school is considering a small solar project for its maintenance facility, which has its own electric meter, which would be used primarily to teach students about solar energy.

Speaking about the management fee, St. Albans City School Board chair Jim Farr said, “I don’t have a lot of heartburn if they take a little cut of it because we’re not doing it for the money, we’re doing it for the kids.”

The consortium projects also come with a curriculum for teaching about solar energy and the possibility of visiting the solar sites.

The city board voted unanimously to join the consortium but not to include the meter for the maintenance facility in the contract and to pursue a separate alternative energy project for that building.

“At the end of the day, they’re dropping $20,000 a year in our lap,” said Farr.