Fulton County

B-P school district expects solar array active by June

Array will also be used as a teaching tool
Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Steve Tomlinson stands in front of the field that will house a 10-acre solar array.
Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Steve Tomlinson stands in front of the field that will house a 10-acre solar array.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

A 10-acre solar array that has been years in the making is expected to come online by June on property at the edge of the Perth intermediate school campus.

Construction of the array is set to begin this month, according to Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Steve Tomlinson. Crews must first pound posts into the ground that are needed to hold scaffolding for 330-watt solar panels – nearly 5,900 of them in all.

Though delayed, district officials promise the solar project will cut the district’s utility costs and save millions in coming decades. It also establishes a culture of conservation and brings students a new educational asset, which will be infused into lessons at all grade levels.

“The district is really putting its green foot forward,” Tomlinson said Thursday.

Once operational, the solar array will pipe energy directly into National Grid power lines, crediting the district for each kilowatt-hour of energy produced and automatically deducting the value of that energy from the district’s utility bills. The district pays $200,000 to $300,000 a year for energy, Tomlinson said.

The savings will be used to pay part of the local share of a $39.7 million capital project approved by voters in 2016, districts officials have promised. The savings are projected to be as high as $5.3 million over the array’s 25-year lifespan, about $3.6 million of which will help cover capital project payments.

The solar project was designed and sized to generate savings to match the district’s utility costs; the savings don’t completely wipe out the utility bill, though, as the district will still pay a discounted rate for energy generated by the array.

Designing, planning and permitting for the project has taken up much of the past two years, leaving the new start date about 18 months later than what district officials initially expected. Tomlinson acknowledged some residents have been frustrated that the project has taken longer to bring online, but he said the delays were outside the district’s control and won’t impact projected savings.

“It’s absolutely going to happen the way we told the community it would happen,” Tomlinson said. “I want to clarify: we haven’t lost a single dime due to delay.”

Gillian Black, the district’s solar consultant, said the delay will ultimately work in the district’s favor, as private solar projects nearby have already paid for upgrades to the area’s utility substation — upgrades needed for the solar array to be connected to the grid.

“Even if our project had been fully constructed, we would not have been allowed to turn the system on,” Black said. As the project developed, the district also locked in solar project incentives and a rate structure that have since been pared back by the state; the current rules would make a similar project harder to get off the ground now, Black said.

When the district was approaching its first capital project after losing an enhanced state reimbursement rate for merged districts, officials explored ways to reduce the cost of the project to local taxpayers. That’s when the conversation turned to solar.

“We have a revenue stream that can offset the local share by a significant amount,” Tomlinson said.

In May 2015, the district released a request for proposals from solar project developers, eventually signing an agreement with Buffalo-based Solar Liberty in early 2016. Fourteen months later, the project had its permit from the state Education Department and other agencies. Fences and stakes to indicate the array’s layout went into the ground last month.

The district owns the land and hosts the solar array; Solar Liberty developed and will maintain the project, while Colorado-based AES Distributed Energy paid for the construction and owns the array. The district will pay a regular rate, stipulated in the contract, to access energy credits from the array. At the end of the 18-year power agreement with Solar Liberty, the district has the option to extend the deal for a 7-year term and again for five years.

A new classroom tool

The solar array also promises to open new academic opportunities. The district is planning a nature trail that will loop around the array and other parts of the over 40 acres the district purchased to house the array.

A constant stream of energy generation data and pricing will also serve a real-life lesson on energy markets. Young students can study the basics of the sun and its energy, while advanced business and science students can use a case study from their backyard as they study renewable energy sources.

Solar Liberty has promised to work with the district on infusing solar lessons into district curriculum.

“We will be teaching a way of life here,” Tomlinson said.

A previous version of this story misstated the name of Solar Liberty.

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