Gateway considers solar power

Scott Backer and Michael Zimmer of Ameresco gave a presentation on solar panels for Gateway to school committee members and staff last night. (Photo by Amy Porter)

Michael Zimmer of Ameresco gave a presentation on solar panels to Gateway School Committee members and school staff last night. (Photo by Amy Porter)

HUNTINGTON – Last night, Gateway Regional School Committee members heard proposals from two electrical construction companies for installing solar panels on the roofs of the Gateway complex. The proposals were the result of a Request for Proposals (RFP) submitted one year ago on behalf of Gateway by Eric Weiss, Sustainability Director for the Hampshire Council of Governments.
Jeffrey Wootan of Broadway Electrical Company in Boston, said his company was the largest solar engineering procurement and construction (EPC) company in Massachusetts in 2011, and one of the top 100 solar companies in the world. In making the case for solar, he said that Massachusetts pays out $18 billion a year in foreign oil.
“Global warming is real. CO2 reduction has value,” he added.
Yesterday, Governor Deval Patrick announced that the previous 400 megawatt cap for solar in the state would be raised to 1.6 gigawatts (1,600 megawatts), a significant announcement for the future of solar because the state had been nearing its cap.
“With the increase, this is going to be a booming economy for Massachusetts,” Wooten said.
Broadway’s proposal for Gateway involves constructing solar panels on Littleville Elementary, the middle school, and the high school with a twenty-year agreement. Wooten said Broadway as the solar provider would do everything – construction, financing, rebates, incentives and maintenance. The benefits for Gateway would be a fixed price for electricity for 20 years with no risk, and no capital outlay, Wooten said.
“How can you guarantee a price for 20 years?” asked Shirley Winer, school committee member from Chester.
Wooten said through site control, funding, the EPC track record and an understanding of the grid.
“WMECO sees this as an affront to their prosperity,” he added.
Wooten said that Broadway would shoot for 50 percent of the electricity needed to run the Gateway complex. He said the first year savings would be $18,000, and after 20 years, $589,000.
“Half a million savings for not putting a dime down, said Wooten. “Not bad.”
Wooten also said the company would donate $5,000 in software and a screen monitoring the panels output outside the lobby area as a teaching tool for the students to learn about solar energy.
“What happens after 20 years?” Winer asked.
“GRSD would sign a 20-year agreement,” Weiss said. “And the amount for 20 years would be delineated. The savings will be guaranteed.”
He said the company would own and manage the system. After the agreement ended, the school district might consider a buyout of the array.
Winer said that she installed solar panels on her house in Chester in 1997. When asked about savings on electricity by Wooten, she explained that previously the house and road had no electricity.
“You’re in western Massachusetts now,” Weiss said.
Scott Backer and Michael Zimmer of Ameresco gave the second presentation to the school committee. Backer said their company was “in the distributed generation business – wind, combined heat & power, natural gas and biomass projects.” He said they were not dependent on solar.
Backer said they would offer an energy curriculum tool for science and technology courses, which would show the output in real time. They would also make it publicly available on a website. He said the output also showed energy comparisons with cars, etc.
He said they would maintain all equipment warranties, monitor and maintain the panels, and prepare annual Department of Energy Resources (DOER) reviews.
Backer said the first savings would be $16,450, and over 20 years, $332,700. He said to honor the pricing, the agreement would need to be signed by June 15 of this year. He said Gateway could buy the panels at year 20 at fair market value, the agreement could be extended, or the school could own the panels and get an operation and maintenance agreement with the company.
At the request of school administration, Ameresco projected that the cost of reroofing in year 11 of the agreement would be $348,780 for removal. Ameresco would secure the bids. Backer said the cost would be included in the roofing estimate. The price given was for new roofs for the entire complex.
The administration had made the request for information because of the age of the middle school roof in particular, which is older than both the high school and Littleville Elementary School, which is the newest.
Stephanie Fisk, Gateway business manager, noted that the projected savings of $332,000 over 20 years would be less than the cost of removing the panels to re-roof.
Backer said they would also need to wait 11 years to replace the roof because of Solar Renewable Energy Credits. Before 11 years, Gateway would need to pay liability for the loss of SREC credits.
“Why is this a good idea for the district?” asked Brian Wing, Gateway’s facilities director.
“You’re basically fixing your power costs,” Backer said.  “From a risk management standpoint, it’s worth doing.”
Zimmer said the ideal time to install the panels would be when the roof has been replaced.
“At best, it’s a wash,” said Weiss. “At the worst case, if rates skyrocket, the savings might be substantial.”
Ameresco’s calculation of savings is based on a 2.5 percent increase in energy costs per year. Broadway’s calculation is based on a 3 percent increase in costs per year.
After the presentation, David Hopson asked Wing if the roof on Littleville would still be good after 20 years.
“I think so,” Wing said. He said Littleville has a much better layout for solar.
At the end of both presentations, Eric Weiss gave a third option for the school.
“What if you wanted solar savings, but you didn’t want solar on your roof?” he asked.
He said Gateway could participate in Hampshire Solar, a program of the Hampshire Council of Governments, which offers solar net metering credits from an array that would be in another community.
Weiss said the Hampshire Council of Governments is partnering with Nexamp, a solar company which is building a solar panel array on Allard’s Farm in Hadley. Gateway would enter into a 20-year agreement to purchase electricity credits from them, and receive a fixed discount of 21 percent for 20 years.
Weiss said Gateway could put 85 percent of their electricity into the contract, leaving a 15 percent hedge in the case of savings or closings in the complex. He said anticipated savings from this program would be $30,000 the first year, and $500,000 over 20 years. He said the reason that these agreements are for 20 years, is that financing is for 20 years.
Weiss also said Gateway could do both projects. He said if they agreed to do solar panels with Broadway at their 50 percent estimate for example, they would still have half the load in “brown” power. They could then sign 20 year power purchase agreement for the balance with Nexam.
Weiss said Gateway is in a strong position, because it is possible to build and/or net meter solar. He said they had four options. Option one would be to build solar a proposed and net meter the balance at a 21 percent discount. Option two would be to build solar on Littleville, and net meter Gateway because of concern over the roof. Option three would be to net meter the whole school. Option four would be to do nothing with solar.
“Forgoing everything,” said Wing. “Let’s go back to the kids. Could we do a program for them with net metering?”
Weiss said they could.
“This is how I see it,’ he said. “We’ve been through a lower than predicted period (in costs of electricity) because of the fracking of gas. Gas cost is rising now with no pressure to push them down, and it will push electricity with it. Going with either makes you greener. Sooner is better because of changing solar markets.”
Stephanie Fisk asked, what the downside of net metering is?
Weiss said the discount is 21 percent no matter what, but the savings could be higher with a solar array if prices spike.
“If you’re going to get serious about negotiating different options,” he said. “you have to choose one of these vendors.”
He added that once Gateway commits their energy load to either of these projects, they can’t renegotiate.
The school committee members present agreed to review the options at their regular meeting Wednesday, and choose a vendor at that time to continue negotiations.

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