Northern Gila County schools are quickly becoming a hotbed of solar integration.
In early December, the Tonto Basin school became one of the first schools in the state to flip the switch on 135 solar panels installed above its playground.
Payson also recently turned on its 1.2-megawatt photovoltaic system mounted above the parking areas at Payson High School.
Payson’s solar project is being heralded as the largest system at a school in the state and is even garnering national attention.
However, for a small district like Tonto Basin (72 elementary-aged students) becoming one of a growing number of schools across the country switching to solar power is a huge accomplishment.
Tonto Basin Superintendent/Principal Johnny Ketchem said he feels “very, very fortunate” to have the system at Tonto Basin. The new system is even inspiring some local homeowners to install solar panels on their homes.
The $161,000 solar project in Tonto Basin was paid for with federal stimulus money, meaning the school doesn’t owe anything for the panels and is immediately reaping the benefits.
The district anticipates shaving 50 percent to 75 percent off its APS bill with the panels generating between 3,400 to 5,200 kilowatt hours (kWh) a month.
“This is a significant cost savings for this school,” Ketchem said. And for a school with a million-dollar budget, saving that money means being able to put it toward something else.
In Payson, a group of investors fronted $12 million for the project, which the school
district will pay back in installments over the next 15 years. This shouldn’t cost the district anything extra, however, since the installments are equivalent to the district’s current cost of electricity.
At the end of the 15 years, the Payson Unified School District will own the equipment. The middle school is also receiving panels, along with Julia Randall and Payson elementary schools.
In Tonto Basin, the schools facility board discovered the district was eligible for the solar project. When Ketchem heard there was a possibility the school could get it, he leaped at the opportunity.
“I jump on all these things, anything I can do for this community,” he said. Ketchem has always looked for ways to advance the small district.
Several months ago the district proudly opened the Little Red Schoolhouse, which houses the district’s preschool. In a few weeks, a newly constructed front office will also open at the school.
The new space gives administration more room and adds security since visitors will now have to enter through the office instead of through the unsecured gym doors.
Last summer, the school collaborated with APS and through a 50/50 grant got T5 lighting fixtures in the gym, replacing more expensive halogen fixtures.
Ketchem said this has cut down on utility costs and heat.
The old halogen lights generated a lot of extra warmth in the small gym, especially during the summer months when the building is already hot.
“These (new lights) put out more light so we don’t have to run as many and they last longer,” he said.
In September, construction started on Tonto Basin’s solar panels. Ketchem had the option of installing the panels on the school’s roof, but he chose to place them over the playground equipment, which gives the added benefit of offering shade.
The solar photovoltaic system was installed by Sky Renewable Energy and includes 135 panels and three invertors. Year one output for the system should be 53,200 kWh at a cost per kWh at $5.44.