ELC solar project may be stimulated
BY TOM REILLY
Town Administrator Jim Smith last week supplied the Board of Selectmen with an overview of the solar energy project at the Simonian Early Learning Center, which he hopes will benefit from federal stimulus money.
The plans for a solar array at the ELC have been in place almost as long as the actual plan to replace the roof there, Smith said. He noted that the timing was perfect because the solar array will be installed on a roof with at least a 20-year lifespan.
Smith cited the goals of investing in solar panels at the school: reducing short- and long-term operating costs, taking advantage of stimulus and tax incentives/rebates, reducing the impact on the environment, creating a curriculum tool for the school department, and leading by example.
The department spent $200,000 per year on energy alone and the solar panels at the ELC will “make a serious dent in those costs,” Smith said. One other reason Smith moved quickly to have the feasibility study done was to take advantage of stimulus dollars for shovel-ready projects. He said Sutton was notified eight to ten months ago that money would be available for communities investing in renewable energy projects, and the town applied for the funds.
The solar plan was first put into effect when the design of the new roof was approved last spring. At the May 2008 town meeting, the borrowing for the new roof and the solar array was approved. The next step was to apply for stimulus grants. After that, the town put out a Request for Proposals that divided the project into several phases from confirming the feasibility study and preliminary design, to final design, purchase and installation of the solar equipment.
Borrego Solar of Lowell conducted the feasibility study and came up with a 225,000 KWh system that would generate $31,000 in savings the first year of operation. Smith said that the cost of the project is approximately $1.3 million, though part of the first phase of the RFP is to update these numbers. Smith said the existing borrowing for the roof still contains $136,000 from that project. Town meeting had appropriated $869,000 for the roof project and the work was completed for $733,000.
The original plan also called for applying for a rebate payment of $700,000 from the state’s Commonwealth Solar program. Smith said the state had initially set aside $168 million to disburse to communities and residents who had invested in solar and other renewable energies. But the program is now out of money. “It was so successful that there’s no money left,” said Smith.
The state is creating a new program and funding it at least at the same level as the original program, he said. The program might be aimed more at renewable energy credits rather than as rebate payments, Smith noted.
Smith said he is looking toward using $180,000 in state and federal renewable energy credits. He told the selectmen that he had applied for a $150,000 stimulus grant, the maximum amount a community can receive. There is also $7,500 in energy choice money that the board had voted to apply to this project. Smith added that the project will not go forward unless all of the necessary $1.175 million in funding is in place.
“That leaves a gap,” said Smith, stating that even if all the funding comes through, the town will still be short $25,000 to $150,000. “If we get less stimulus grant funds or if we get fewer credits, that number will be a bigger gap,” he added.
He plans to “pay that gap” by reducing the school budget by “a certain number of dollars over a certain number of years.”
Borrowing the money for the project might require a special town meeting, depending on the timing of the approvals, as shovel-ready projects need to get underway very quickly, said Smith. “If the state says ‘go now,’ and you need to spend this in the next four months, you may need a special town meeting to gets this rolling,” he said.
The annual town meeting in May could be sufficient, Smith said, but there would be no appropriation or debt exclusion required to fund the project. The goal would be to borrow the money for 10 years and pay it back by reducing the school’s energy budget $20,000 per year over 10 years. He added that the town has also applied for a $50,000 stimulus grant to provide technical assistance and project management.
Smith said the state has set aside $12.5 million for energy efficiency projects that are shovel-ready for communities of fewer than 35,000 people. He expects to know by mid-January which applications were successful.
If the project proceeds, Smith would like to do it over the summer months, similar to the way the ELC’s new roof was installed. He expected the solar panel installation would cause less of an impact then the roof had.
“Obviously, tearing off roofing and throwing that off and into dumpsters [was a problem],” Smith said. “This is more getting the equipment up there and installing it. It should have a much less day to day impact.”