Solar power at Branchville? School board weighs contract

With summer starting to fade and the winter months of darkness on the horizon, powering another one of the district’s schools by solar energy may seem like an odd topic to bring up.

Lack of sun aside, multiple people familiar with the project have confirmed the town will install a solar array on the roof of Branchville Elementary School once a final contract is issued.

“We are currently obtaining revised prices for the installation of a 100-kw solar installation at Branchville School,” Town Engineer Charles Fisher. “This is a system similar to what was installed at Farmingville School.”

Fisher said there would be more information once a contract to provide Branchville with a solar power array is released.

Superintendent Karen Baldwin also confirmed to The Press that the district is “working in consultation with the town to explore solar power at Branchville.”

Why Branchville?

Dwayne Escola, whose works for Northeast Smart Energy and helped install the solar system at Farmingville, said that Branchville was chosen as the next candidate for solar power because Eversource does not charge a “demand” charge for higher electrical usage at Branchville.

“Demand charge is a fee that is charged to reserve power plant capacity for ‘peak’ electrical usage (i.e. when a ‘heavy electrical load’ is first turned on such as air conditioning units),” Escola said.

He explained that many large commercial or town buildings do have a demand charge from Eversource, which means that Branchville’s savings from solar energy are not offset by spikes in electrical usage.


So how is the town paying for the new solar array?

The final price tag on the system has not yet been disclosed — that will depend partially on the contractor’s bid to install the system — but, according to Escola, it shouldn’t cost the town a dime.

Whereas a homeowner would be on the hook for the cost of a new solar array installed on their house, Escola explained, municipal buildings can have an investor pay for the upfront cost of a new solar array in exchange for a number of incentives.

So the project essentially costs the town nothing from the operating budget.

In the state of Connecticut, that investor is usually selected by the Connecticut Green Bank, a state entity which uses “limited public dollars to attract private capital investment in clean energy projects,” according to the bank’s website.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said that since there is no appropriation from the town budget,  the contract only needs the Board of Selectmen’s approval to go forward.

Escola said that while his company installed the system at Farmingville, his bid for Branchville was unsuccessful.

He maintained that the process was good for the town in the long run, as schools are able to save money on electricity without burdening taxpayers.


What would a private investor gain from paying for Branchville’s solar array?

According to Escola, the big-ticket item for investors are the site’s Zero Emissions Renewable Energy Credits, or ZRECs.

“Acquiring the ZRECs for the Town means that they have something of value that they can give an investor in return for the investor paying 100% for the solar installation for the Town,” Escola said.

The investor then makes money on the system four ways, Escola said. Those are:

  1. A Federal Tax Credit of 30% of the cost of the solar system installation.
  2. Tax savings based on depreciating the system in 5 years.
  3. ZREC income for 15 years (around 10 cents/kwh) for all electricity generated by the solar system.
  4. Selling the solar electricity to the school at a reduced price (in the case of Famingville 7.1 cents/kwh).

“The Farmingville system did not cost the town any money even though it is now saving over 11 cents per kwh on all the electricity generated by the solar system on it's roof,” he said.

Tracking the savings

Last year, Farmingville Elementary School had a 377-panel solar system installed on the roof, which was meant to cover 80% of the school’s power needs. A monitor displaying the system’s daily power generation hangs in the lobby near main entrance.

“The District tracks utility costs by building and we do see savings through the solar program at Farmingville Elementary School,” said Baldwin, when asked about the array at Farmingville.

A quick check of the system’s reports online revealed that solar power at Farmingville saved the school about $25,000 in energy costs in the year that it has been active, about $5000 more than was originally suggested for the year.

As for future solar projects? Escola said he has already secured the ZRECs for the town at Barlow Mountain Elementary and Scotts Ridge Middle School.

“It’s a bit like winning the lottery,” Escola said about the benefits to the town.