A small crowd gathered Friday for the symbolic groundbreaking of the Payson school district’s new solar system, baking under the same sun that would soon power most of the district’s energy needs.
Everybody sweltered, some sat in seats that scorched their bottoms, others reached gratefully into a cooler that held bottled water.
They waited for Gov. Jan Brewer, who was flying into Payson’s Airport to speak at the official beginning of the largest school solar project in the state.
“I look like I just rode in on my broom or something,” Brewer joked as she took the stage. “I don’t have to tell you that energy costs are significant for schools.”
She congratulated the district for embarking on this project, which allows the district to control its energy future, taking ownership of the equipment after 15 years and requiring no initial district investment.
The loan re-payments will equate to roughly what the school would pay any way in utility costs.
And, the array of federal tax credits and Arizona Public Service rebates will cover about 80 percent of the costs. The district’s portion will amount to about $12 million over the contract term.
The panels last for about 25 years. That means the district will enjoy about a decade of nearly free energy.
While it may receive bills during the winter, for instance, while it draws energy from the grid, it might generate more energy than it uses during the summer. As excess energy feeds the grid, the district would receive credits to cover them during the higher energy winter months.
“This takes us a step closer to the reality of having a sustainable energy future in Arizona,” said Mike Cole, with APS.
Brewer said solar energy sits high on her priority list. “I want us to be the global leader,” she said.
Once completed by the end of November, the 5,240-panel system, with panels at the Payson High School and middle school campus, along with Julia Randall and Payson Elementary schools, will produce the majority of the district’s power.
“I’ve been assured that these solar panels have been built to withstand the monsoons like we’re about to have in half an hour,” quipped Superintendent Casey O’Brien as the sky darkened and the air cooled.
“It will also provide a good commodity in Arizona, and that’s shade,” said Allison Suriano, an associate with project management firm Kennedy Partners.
Suriano has said she normally doesn’t build panels on school rooftops because schools need access in case of repairs. Instead, the structures will create shaded areas in parking lots and playgrounds, among other places.