Memorial Sports Center eyed for 40 solar panels

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s ad hoc energy committee is evaluating a plan to install a series of solar hot water panels on the south facing façade of the Memorial Sports Center as a way of reducing the facility’s fuel expenses while providing an alternative way of heating water in the municipal swimming pool.
Jeremy Rathbun, an energy committee member and project manager with Phelps Engineering, explained that propane is a primary heating fuel now used at the sports center off Buttolph Drive. A company called Sunward Systems recently approached the town about providing solar equipment to cut the facility’s energy costs.
Middlebury Zoning Administrator Ted Dunakin, also a member of the energy committee, said an evaluation of the sports center roof revealed that it would not be strong enough to bear the load of the solar panels.
“The wall is a lot stronger,” he said, of the fallback position.
So the committee, in consultation with Sunward, is considering a plan calling for 40 solar hot water panels to be installed on the sports center’s south-facing wall. Each panel is 4 feet by 8 feet, according to Rathbun. The panels are black with a glass surface, and they include related piping to heat and process the hot water, which would be used for the center’s showers and the Zamboni ice surfacing system.
During the warmer months, the panels could be used to produce heat for the nearby municipal pool, according to local recreation officials.
“The town could save a significant amount of money using solar power for hot water heating,” Rathbun said.
Officials are still calculating whether the energy savings would be enough to warrant pursuing the project.
Very preliminary estimates place the project cost at around $80,000, a figure that could be reduced through financial incentives from such organizations as Efficiency Vermont. Even with some energy efficiency incentives, it’s looking like a 40-year payback on the project, according to Rathbun. But organizers are hoping that revenues gained from an extended swim season at the municipal pool could hasten the payback to 20 years.
Middlebury’s municipal pool was open this year from June 15 to Aug. 18, according to Terri Arnold, director of the town’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Arnold acknowledged that retaining lifeguards beyond mid-August has been a challenge, as these positions are typically held by high school and college students. Asked how this might affect the town’s ability to secure staff for an extended swimming pool season, Arnold replied (by e-mail), “To extend the pool season earlier or later would be a simple matter of reducing the days/hours of operation, reduce the number of staff required, and specifically hire local adults who are, or can be, certified for lifeguarding.”
It remains unclear how debt for the solar project would be divided among the primary beneficiaries, which figure to be Friends of Middlebury Hockey and the town.
Meanwhile, townspeople could vote as soon as this December on a proposal to build a new recreation facility close to the sports center and Mary Hogan Elementary School. This has prompted some townspeople to wonder if it would be a better idea to invest in a solar hot water system for that new facility.
Arnold believes it would be advantageous for both structures to go solar.
“When the solar assessment was commissioned, there was no knowledge of a new recreation facility as a possibility, therefore, the roof or south facing wall of the Memorial Sports Center were the options,” she said. “With the possibility of a new recreation facility being built, I would hope that all avenues of using solar would be explored.”
Rathbun said the energy committee is seeking more detailed information from Sunward in anticipation of presenting the plan to the selectboard in the near future. If all goes well, Rathbun said the solar project could be installed at the sports center before this winter.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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