Solar eyed for sports center roof

WITH THE SECOND floor now completed at Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center, Friends of Middlebury Hockey President Mike McAuliffe and his colleagues are introducing the idea of a solar array on the roof of the building, located at 296 Buttolph Drive. Independent file photo/John Flowers

There is a substantial upfront cost (for a solar array), but the long-term savings to the community could be quite substantial, and would enable Friends of Middlebury Hokey, over time, to really cut the cost for shared-use of the facility year-round.

— Mike McAuliffe

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center could save around $600,000 in electricity costs over the next 25 years if its roof were topped with solar panels.

That was among the findings in a recent feasibility study completed by SunCommon, the state’s largest solar installer. Friends of Middlebury Hockey (FOMH) had commissioned the study to determine the viability and potential cost benefits of a solar project at the sports center, which has a yearly electricity budget of around $50,000.

Friends of Middlebury Hockey has managed and operated the sports center since it was erected at 296 Buttolph Drive in 1993. The building is owned by the town of Middlebury, whose selectboard and voters would need to authorize any major capital improvement at the facility.

Mike McAuliffe, president of FOMH, said the group has long been intrigued by the potential cost savings that solar panels could produce for the sports center. But solar has had to take a backseat to other, more pressing needs at the center, he explained. Chief among them: Completion of a heated, second-floor viewing area that includes bathrooms, a concession stand, a multi-purpose room and an administrative office.

“Now that we’ve finished the second floor and we’ve really achieved what the original founding vision was for MSC, the next conversation we had when our board met (this past) spring was, ‘What’s the next big goal that we should look at?’” McAuliffe said. “One of the options we discussed was a solar solution for the building.”

So FOMH commissioned SunCommon to conduct a feasibility study, which it recently completed.

With its flat roof and orientation to the sun, SunCommon officials are pitching a 218-kilowatt array for the structure, which would cost around $423,000.

“In the pro forma that follows we have modeled a 20-year financing of the solar project at 2.5% interest,” the SunCommon study states. “This type of ownership and financing scenario would net a savings of about $12,000 in year one and nearly $600,000 over 25 years. It assumes that the owner can take on and get access to this type of loan.”

McAuliffe stressed FOMH is just beginning its solar array investigation, and promised the Middlebury selectboard will be kept apprised of its progress. It should be noted that while Middlebury has historically served as the borrowing agent for major sports center projects, FOMH has covered all debt through fundraising, business sponsorships, donations and rental revenues from sports center users. In this manner, Memorial Sports Center stewards have been able to expand and improve the building without taxpayer money.

Speaking as an individual FOMH board member, McAuliffe believes a solar array would be a good idea. And he stressed that because FOMH is a nonprofit, any energy savings would be passed along to sports center users in the form of reduced rates. And the sports center already boasts some of the lowest rates around, according to McAuliffe. During the winter season (early October to mid-March), rental of the facility is $190 per hour, which includes facility, lights and ice resurfacing. Public skating, for folks 13 and older, is $4 per session.

“My opinion is there is a substantial upfront cost (for an array), but the long-term savings to the community could be quite substantial, and would enable FOMH, over time, to really cut the cost for shared-use of the facility year-round,” McAuliffe said. “That’s really exciting to us.”

Sports center officials believe this is a good time to seek funding for building upgrades.

“There’s a lot of federal and state money being distributed for COVID-infrastructure projects,” McAuliffe said. “I have been continuously staying informed on those and monitoring for opportunities for FOMH to tap into some of that money to benefit the community.”

The FOMH group already runs a tight ship when it comes to energy use at the sports center. During the past two decades, FOMH has upgraded the building with a dehumidification system, efficient refrigeration system motors, and an intelligent refrigeration system that can sense weather circumstances and adjust power consumption accordingly. Rick Marshall, manager of the Memorial Sports Center, added the building’s rink-side lighting is now LED.

Also, the sports center has entered Green Mountain Power’s Curtailable Rate Reduction Program, through which its electricity consumption is lowered during GMP-identified peak demand periods. In return, the building gets a reduced electricity rate while GMP avoids purchasing additional power during peak periods.

“It turns out that peak periods in the winter months are typically the coldest days and our refrigeration system is often idling during these periods, so this program does not constrain us much, (and it’s) a win for all,” Marshall said.

Plans call for FOMH officials to meet with Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay later this month to go over the feasibility study and determine how/whether to advance the solar array option for the Memorial Sports Center.

McAuliffe said the ball is in the town’s court.

“All we want to do is be a good partner,” he said.

Selectboard member Heather Seeley chairs the town’s Infrastructure Committee, a panel that would be asked to weigh in on a solar project. Speaking for herself, Seeley said, “I think this is a great place for solar panels… I’m not sure where they are in the process but hope the town can assist.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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