The Pine Strawberry Elementary School could be powered solely by the sun after November.
The school board last week signed on with Phoenix-based Kennedy Partners to complete the project, which is the final step in a two-year project to green the school.
Kennedy Partners is also working with the Payson Unified School District on a similar solar project. School districts statewide are benefiting from a new statute that allows public parties to partner with private companies. Through the private companies, schools can capture tax credits they normally are ineligible for, installing solar powered panels for no upfront costs.
Federal tax credits can pay for 30 percent of the project’s cost. That money, along with rebates from Arizona Public Service, make the projects financially feasible, according to Kennedy Partners.
The company finds the investors, shops for panels, and then maintains the system for 15 years while the school pays for it.
Pine’s project would cost $1.3 million. However, instead of paying money upfront, the district will pay its utility bills for the next 15 years to Kennedy Partners. After 15 years, the district will own the equipment outright.
“We think it’s a no-brainer for school districts,” said Allison Suriano, an associate with Kennedy Partners.
APS allows schools to connect their solar systems directly to the main power grid. And so, during summer months and weekends while school is out, the system would feed power into the grid, resulting in energy credits.
When the school uses more energy than it produces, like in cold winter months, it would then drain power from the grid. Ideally, the power used would net to zero.
Another benefit to school districts is the flat-rated utility bills they’ll see for the next decade-and-a-half.
Superintendent Mike Clark said energy costs have fluctuated from 9 cents per kilowatt-hour to more than 13 cents per kilowatt-hour over the past three years. Those fluctuations make it difficult for the district to budget.
Last year, Pine spent $30,000 on electricity. During the past two years, the school has replaced its traditional fluorescent lights with high efficiency, compact ones, installed a new heating and air conditioning system, and connected classroom lights to motion sensors so the light turns off if no motion is detected for 15 minutes.
Indeed, during Monday’s meeting, the lights turned off at one point until people began swinging their arms to turn them on again.
Pine’s finances, fine for now, could become precarious depending on how the Legislature handles small schools.
School board member Jennifer Zimmerman wondered what would happen to the agreement if lawmakers reduced the small schools adjustment. The state aid comprises roughly half of the school’s budget, and Zimmerman said the school would cease to exist if lawmakers swept it. The solar equipment would be orphaned.
That scenario is the worst case and not likely to happen at this time, school officials quickly added.
Mark Rafferty, also with Kennedy Partners, said he listens closely to legislative murmurs, and hadn’t heard about any plans to alter the small schools adjustment. Both representatives from Kennedy Partners appeared unfazed.
Solar panels measure roughly three-and-a-half feet by 5 feet, and cost $1,000 each. Pine’s layout would create 8,400 square feet of shade, possibly over a parking lot.
The district plans to begin construction in July, and have the system operational sometime in November.
The parking lot structures have proved a selling point for local schools. Suriano said she doesn’t propose rooftop structures for schools because of frequent roof problems.
Payson schools have agreed to a similar project for supplying energy at the high school, middle school and Payson Elementary School.
Payson Superintendent Casey O’Brien said this week that the district is also investigating powering Julia Randall Elementary School and the neighboring administration building with solar power.