Wednesday April 3, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- While Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard is looking to fly across America next month in a solar-powered plane, local school districts are seeking the sun’s rays to defray the cost of education.

At recent conservation committee meetings at Cambridge Central School, discussion has revolved around a possible Power Purchase Agreement with a solar provider, Monolith Solar Associates LLC. The same Rensselaer-based company recently entered into a contract with the village of Hoosick Falls to install solar photovoltaic panels on municipal-owned land there.

Monolith representatives presented the option to school committee members in March, and are on the agenda to make a similar presentation at the school board’s regular meeting April 9. Under such an agreement, the solar provider owns and operates the solar array with no upfront cost to the host customer, who in turn agrees to purchase the energy produced at a cost 25 percent below what they would otherwise pay on the open market.

At CCS, the proposal would involve two 50 kW arrays, one each atop the central school building and the district offices. State law currently limits the size of tax-incentive-eligible solar installations to 50 kW per meter for businesses and municipalities, including schools.

"It makes total sense," said school Superintendent Vincent Canini. While an array at the district offices could produce nearly the amount of electricity that building uses, current regulations do not allow the customer to produce more than they consume.

"It’s basically to take the edge off" of energy costs, Canini said. The contract length at CCS would be 20 years.

While producing savings, the solar arrangement also has an additional educational component at schools. An informational "kiosk" can be set up in the lobby or elsewhere for students to analyze production and usage, and that data can also be made available online for teachers and the community to view. One or more panels may also be ground-mounted to allow students an up-close look.

"We’re very excited about its potential," said Steve Butz, a science teacher and technology coordinator at the school who also sits on the energy, conservation, and sustainability committee.

Should the district move ahead with the PPA, a smaller 2.2 kW solar array included in a previously approved energy project can be pulled from that work. Butz said the publicly available information, as well as an offer by Monolith to have engineers present in classrooms, would serve as an excellent teaching tool.

Schodack Central School is one example of a nearby district that has incorporated solar arrays into curriculum.

A review by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association found 76 percent growth in solar panel installations nationwide in 2012.

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