Solar Panels Will Help School Cut Costs

New law allows private entities to get tax credit from public agencies

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In an effort to curtail spiraling utility costs, Payson Unified School District could install solar panels to provide electricity at the high school, middle school and administration building. Payson Elementary School could also be included.

The district can complete the $10-million project without raising capital because of tax credits, Arizona Public Service rebates and a brand new state statute that allows private entities to partner with public entities. Public agencies, like school districts, are not eligible for tax credits. But with this new statute, private entities can receive the tax credits for the public agencies.

“The beauty of this whole thing is there is no cost incurred to the district,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

Federal tax credits can pay for 30 percent of the project cost, and APS rebates offer up to 50 percent. The remainder comes from private financing, which PUSD would repay over 10 to 12 years, representatives from the capital projects planning firm Kennedy Partners told the school board at a recent informational session. Kennedy Partners specializes in sustainability projects and school districts.

However much the district would normally pay for utilities, it would instead use to repay the loan. The current cost is estimated at $500,000 annually, which is how much the district paid for utilities last school year. That’s up from $310,000 in the 2007/2008 school year.

“We’re betting that utility rates are not going down,” O’Brien said.

The panels have a lifespan of about 25 years, and the district would own the technology after repaying the loan. If the plan unfolds smoothly, the system could be operational in a year. The next step is for the board to seek formal proposals, if it decides to move forward.

“I’m convinced it’s absolutely viable,” O’Brien said.

Panels will cover anywhere from 60,000 to 65,000 square feet, and will consist of a combination of structures that offer shade and a “ground-mounted array” where panels follow the sun as it moves across the sky. Roof-top solar panels will not be used.

Possible places include building a covering over parking lots, the maintenance yard, over the bleachers, or at the southwest corner of the high school.

Payson Elementary School is the only other site under consideration because the school is the only other with an orientation conducive to building solar panels.

Another possibility is developing curriculum around the technology, once installed. Students from advanced placement physics to fourth grade science could learn about solar technology and energy use.

The board has yet to vote on the proposal, but members appeared interested Wednes-day night. Several concerns arose, including what would happen if the panels didn’t produce as much electricity as promised.

Board members wondered if the district would then need to pay both the loan and utility bills.

Business manager Bobette Tomerlin said insurance would protect the district, and would compensate it should the panels not produce as promised.

Kennedy Partners, if hired, would help the district find private financing, the best deal on solar panels, and act as the project manager.

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