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Starksboro project tests feasibility of solar power

STARKSBORO — In October of 2010, the town of Starksboro took major steps to revamp its energy portfolio by installing 25 solar power arrays mounted on trackers on 1.5 acres of land adjacent to Robinson Elementary School.
From the outset, one of the main goals of this project was to net zero energy consumption for the school and town buildings. Put another way, town and school officials sought to produce as much energy using solar as they drew from the electric power grid in the course of a year.
“It mirrors the town’s values and the school’s values to make big improvements in the school’s overall energy usage and efficiency,” said Dan Noel, principal at Robinson Elementary.
After three quarters the school and town appear to be on track to achieving their goal.
Nineteen of the 25 photovoltaic solar arrays, which could generate a total of 76 kilowatts (kW), were set up for the school and six trackers with a capacity of 24 kW were put up for the town to help produce energy for the town offices, town hall, library, garage, fire department, old offices and first response building.
From the beginning of last October to the end of June, the arrays dedicated to town buildings produced 265 more kilowatt hours than the 22,534 kWh the buildings consumed, netting negative energy consumption, according to energy reports compiled by AllEarth Renewables.
Robinson Elementary, however, consumed about 25,000 more kilowatt hours than the 70,058.2 kWh its solar trackers produced. This larger energy consumption comes as no surprise to local officials and administrators, who are still hopeful that the school will net zero.
“In the summer months we obviously don’t use the building as much and thus use as much electricity, and the production of the panels (in summer) is huge,” Noel said in an interview in early spring.
While students vacate the school for the summer, the panels’ production is at its peak. In July, the school’s panels had their best month yet, producing 14,714 kWh, almost 2,000 more than June, which was the second-highest month for energy production. The consumption data for July has yet to be released, but with students on summer vacation, it’s likely to be very low.
Anyone can see how much power Starksboro’s solar array is producing by going online to www.allearthrenewables.com/energy-production-report. The school’s panels and the town’s panels are separate entities, with separate meters and separate identification numbers on the allearrthrenewables.com website; look for identification numbers 246 for the school and 247 for the town.
Although these numbers show how much electric power was produced, the electricity from the solar arrays does not go directly into the school or town buildings. The panels feed power into the electric grid.
“The grid supplies us with a constant source of electricity,” said Noel. “The solar panels offset our use of electricity.”
FINANCING SOLAR
The agreements that the school and town struck are essentially the same. They entered into what’s called a “Power Purchase Agreement” with the AllSun solar tracker division of the Williston-based company AllEarth Renewables. This agreement is essentially a five-year lease of the panels that is more favorable for entities that don’t pay taxes — and can’t take advantage of tax credits — like schools and municipalities.
Here’s how the central costs and benefits their agreements break down:
•  Both entities had to make an initial payment of $1,000. If either entity wishes to purchase the trackers at the end of the five years, it will be refunded the $1,000.
•  For every kWh the panels produce, each entity must pay a 19-cent service fee to AllSun.
•  At the same time, the school and town’s utility, Green Mountain Power (GMP), provides a 19.456 cent credit for every kWh that the panels produce. It’s a six-cent incentive for GMP’s commercial consumption rate of 13.456 cents.
•  The school and town make 0.456 cents for every kWh produced.
•  When the 13.456-cent cost of power is factored in, the school and town pay only 13 cents for every kWh because of the incentive. This 13-cent rate, however, only applies for the number of kilowatt hours produced. Therefore, the school would pay 13 cents for the 70,058.2 kWh it produced, but would have to pay the commercial rate of 13.456 cents for the remaining 25,000 kWh that it used.
THE PANELS’ FUTURE
When the contracts expire, the town and school will have the opportunity to buy the trackers at 30 percent of their original price or renew another five-year rate-adjusted agreement. When that agreement expires Starksboro could buy the panels at roughly 20 percent their original price.
At the end of five years, the savings won’t be huge. Up until July, the school saved $319.46 from the 0.456-cent incentive by producing 70,058.2 kWh of electricity. That $319.46 is about one-third the cost of the school’s initial $1,000 investment.
“The school … will never get a huge return on the investment if they stay in the power purchase agreement for forever, but on the other hand they may never have a large capital expense associated with being solar,” said Caleb Elder, town energy coordinator and a salesman for AllEarth Renewables.
“We’ve always thought of solar as this investment with a lot of payback. But what if there is no investment? What if there is no payback? It’s just pay as you go and you can have large energy users be 100 percent renewably powered, which at the end of the day, for us, is a primary driver,” he said.
Although the school is making no moves to purchase the panels at this time, the town is. At last March’s town meeting, local residents voted to put $11,160, or one-fifth of the price of the trackers after five years, in a reserve fund. Selectboard chairwoman Susan Jefferies indicated that after 12 years, the panels would pay themselves off and would begin to generate revenue for the town.
“If we put aside that money each year over five years, then we will have the money to pay AllEarth Renewables to purchase the trackers,” she said. “I would ask for a separate vote at the time to make sure that the town agreed that’s what we want to do with that much money.”
Jefferies said that she hasn’t heard any negative feedback about the solar projects yet, and there have been a number of requests to expand the town’s capacity. Until now the town’s utility divide between Central Vermont Public Service and GMP has presented an obstacle to the town’s expansion, but as the two utilities merge, Jefferies is optimistic.
“There are multiple advantages (to solar): There are cost savings, there are environmental savings and the lasting impression that it makes on students and on other kids within the community,” said Noel.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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