CRARYVILLE–The Taconic Hills School District is going solar in a bigger way than before. The evidence is on view in a hillside meadow just across Route 23 from the district campus, where five long rows of solar panels are anchored to the farmland.
Interviewed before last week’s school board meeting Superintendent Neil Howard spoke about how the change came about and his expectations for how it will benefit the district.
District officials first started thinking about switching to solar power in 2012, spurred by budgetary concerns as well as an interest in renewable energy sources and connecting students with energy technology, a growing job sector. “We were looking at recurring costs and how we might control them,” Dr. Howard said, adding, “Two years ago electricity rates were five cents per kilowatt hour now it’s nine cents.” Although electricity costs were less than 1% of the budget in the 2014-15 academic year, those costs totaled $316,283.
Dr. Howard also mentioned other “environmental considerations” like the fluctuating costs of fuel oil. “We need to be nimble, we need to be quick” to identify recurring costs that “we can have control over,” he said. He cited the example of heating the school’s swimming pool, which is serviced by two boilers. “When the temperatures are very cold the larger boiler is engaged, which is more costly than running the smaller one.”
Dr. Howard anticipates that with the new solar panels in operation the district will save 25% – 30% on future electricity costs.
The district took the first step in August 2013, when officials inked a 20-year deal with Monolith Solar, an Albany company, to supply three arrays of solar panels for the bus garage and shed roofs. Within two months of winning approval from the Copake Planning and Zoning boards, construction and installation of these initial solar arrays was complete. Those buildings now receive power directly from the roof-mounted panels.
The new solar farm will operate differently under an arrangement known as net metering. Monolith will sell power generated by the panels directly to New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) and the school district gets a credit from that sale that helps offset the cost of its electricity bill. “Basically, the system is sending the school money every day the sun’s shining,” said Tim Carr of Monolith.
Mr. Carr said his company provided the construction, installation and monitoring of the system and is “guaranteeing a 30% discount” on electricity costs for the life of the agreement.
Monolith also lets the school district monitor the output of the new system on the Internet using software that measures the amount of power produced and the savings for the district, and it can calculate the “carbon offset” associated with greenhouse gas production and climate change.
There’s an educational component, as well, Mr. Carr said. Company representatives periodically meet with TH students to explain how solar energy works.
Dr. Howard said he expects that within two weeks the new solar farm will be operational. The holdup right now is due to scheduling conflicts at NYSEG. The utility must inspect the system before it can begin supplying power to the nearby school. Mr. Carr, saying this week that the district would start accumulating power credits “any moment now.”
The new solar system will have a capacity of 198,000 kilowatts, according to Dr. Howard. Monolith Solar purchased the lot on Route 23 from a private owner; it is not on school property.
Dr. Howard says that the total cost of the latest project is $1 million, but Taconic Hills is getting the solar system at no cost because the district’s share of the investment, $200,000, is being paid by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Monolith receives a federal tax credit and guaranteed revenue for 20 years.
Both Mr. Carr and Dr. Howard described the arrangement as “win, win.”
In addition to the financial savings, TH students will benefit from exposure to renewable energy technology. The superintendent says that science and technology faculty are discussing how to incorporate lab sections into existing courses at all grade levels from elementary to senior high school.