Schools move forward on grant for solar panels

Would save energy costs at Carver and Leonardtown

Friday, May 28, 2010

The St. Mary's school board took its next step in hopes of getting a no-risk installation of solar panels on elementary school roofs that could save money on electric bills.

The school system received one of 21 Project Sunburst grants offered by the Maryland Energy Administration to assist in the installation of solar panels on public buildings. The grant for St. Mary's public schools is for $497,000 for installations at George Washington Carver and Leonardtown elementary schools.

The grants are funded by federal stimulus dollars as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The solar arrays would, at peak performance, crank out 216 kilowatts at Carver and 281 kilowatts at Leonardtown, enough to knock 30 to 40 percent off their electricity bills.

"It's something new, it's something different," board member Mary Washington said, lending her support to the project.

The panels will cost more than the grant to install. The developer that wins the bid award would pay for the installation and be able to earn money back by selling energy credits.

Larry Hartwick, supervisor of school design and construction, said that SMECO has shown interest in buying the credits; power companies are mandated by law to purchase some renewable energy credits.

In the meantime, the schools would reap the benefits of reduced electric bills. The school system could have an opportunity to buy the panels from the developer or have them transferred to the school system after a number of years, Chief Operating Officer Brad Clements said.

Clements and Hartwick said the projects will allow the schools to save money as soon as the panels are installed and also hedge against future electricity price hikes, all without risking a cent.

School staff is drawing up the request for proposal documents, which will include several options, including possibly installing ground-based solar panels that can track with the sun at Margaret Brent Middle School, which has available land.

The school system plans to issue a request for proposal by June 15, select a proposal by Aug. 5 and sign a contract by Aug. 30. Completion is scheduled for April 2011.

Board member Sal Raspa said he was concerned about getting stuck into a contract.

Clements tried to ease some of the concerns and said the project was similar to the "guaranteed savings" programs that St. Mary's public schools entered into in the 1990s.

Clements said that with an endorsement from SMECO, he felt even more comfortable with going forward.

Clements was able at the last hour to have the state government approve an amendment to the agreement that made it explicitly clear that the school board could back out of the deal if members were not pleased with the bids that will be due later this summer. The school board voted unanimously to adopt the memorandum of understanding with the amendment. "I think we'd be foolish not to go on to the next step," said Cathy Allen, vice chair. She reiterated that there should be no cost to the school system and significant savings on the two schools' electric bills.

Board member Marilyn Crosby tried to compare the program to the cap and trade debates that have gone on at the national level. "If we can save money on clean energy, then is our other energy dirty energy?" she asked of the schools' furnaces. Crosby wondered at the meeting whether all of the state's public schools would need to move toward solar energy.