STARKSBORO — Students at Robinson Elementary School will soon be more familiar with the workings of a photovoltaic solar array than the average energy consumer. Technicians recently installed on the Starksboro school’s property 25 solar arrays that will produce all of the power for both the school and the Starksboro town offices.
Officials hope the new technology will not only power the two buildings, but also prove to be a powerful learning tool, as well.
In the spring, members of the Starksboro selectboard approached members of the Robinson school board to discuss the possibility of jointly investing in a slew of solar arrays that would help reduce the cost of electricity for both the town and the school, while setting an important example for students and community members alike.
The town and school board looked into a few different vendors before deciding on AllEarth Renewables, a Williston-based company whose CEO also founded NRG Systems of Hinesburg.
“We liked the idea of working with a local company,” said school board chairwoman Bonita Bedard. “Philosophically, it just felt right.”
The decision to install the solar arrays felt right for a number of reasons — for both the school and the town.
“On the first level, it’s nice to be a producer of energy rather than just a consumer,” said Robinson Principal Dan Noel. “We’re hopefully going to be net-zero in terms of consumption, which will set a great example for all of the kids who go to school here that you can make the power that you need.”
On another level, Noel continued, the installation of the solar arrays will mean “really big savings” for both the town and school in the future.
“We’ve locked in electricity prices for five years, and after that time we are going to have an incredible benefit to the town and school district budget,” he said.
Both the town of Starksboro and Robinson Elementary jumped on the bandwagon of tax rebates that the state sponsored earlier this year for improvements in energy efficiency. They signed onto a five-year power purchase program with Green Mountain Power and AllEarth Renewables that will not only ensure fixed electricity rates of 19 cents per kWh for the next five years, but will also allow them to benefit from the solar arrays with very little upfront cost.
The school and town split the initial installation fee of $1,000, and will not be required to pay any additional amounts for the next five years, at which time they will be given the opportunity to purchase the arrays from AllEarth.
AllEarth has already agreed to sell their AllSun Tracker solar arrays to the school and town for 30 percent off the original value of the array. With the discount, each array will cost $9,300 apiece. Officials acknowledge that when multiplied by 25, that is not exactly negligible — $232,500.
While it will be up to the people of Starksboro to cover this cost should they decide to purchase the arrays in five years, Starksboro selectboard chairwoman Susan Jeffries thinks it will be well worth it.
“I think that it benefits the town by fixing the electricity rate,” she said. “If you think that costs are going to go up over the next five years, and we’ve been able to lock in the price at the lower rate, then we’re going to be saving money.”
And after the town and school pay off the cost of the arrays, they will continue to produce electricity that “is virtually free,” said Jeffries.
According to AllEarth salesman Will King, the solar arrays should “produce meaningful power for the next 30-plus years.”
The arrays themselves, which have taken residence in the field just behind the school off Route 116 in Starksboro village, are quite hefty — each panel is 17-feet tall and 22-feet wide. Each uses AllSun tracker technology, a system that combines GPS with the date and time to enables the panel to follow the sun throughout the day.
“In doing this, they are getting about 40 to 50 percent more power than the traditional model, which just points south all day long,” explained King.
According to King, six of the arrays will be used to power the town offices, and the remaining 19 will be dedicated to the school.
“It’s something that we’ll have to put to a bond vote when the time comes,” Jeffries said. “But we’ve had a great deal of community support and I’m optimistic.”
And what if the panels produce more power than is needed by either the town or the school?
Green Mountain Power will purchase any extra power that the arrays produce, Jeffries and Noel explained.
A LEARNING TOOL
But cost is not the only benefit gained from the new panels, as Noel explained.
Though he’s not sure how exactly the arrays will be incorporated into the school’s curriculum, he sees great opportunity for interaction between students and the solar panels.
“We just established a connection to be able to see what the solar panels are giving us on a daily and also yearly basis,” Noel said. “We’re hoping to take that information and make a virtual display — hopefully on a computer screen so that they will be able to walk in every day and see every day how much power is being produced.”
Noel also hopes to get students involved in planting groundcover crops in the field that houses the panels.
“We’re trying to figure out what the land around them is going to be used for, because they do take up quite a bit of space,” Noel said. The panels occupy 1.5 acres of the 11-acre parcel of land that is adjacent to the school.
“We’re thinking maybe some low crops, like blueberry bushes, pumpkins, winter squash or other garden items,” he said.
The students will play a big part in the decision-making, Noel said.
Bedard said that she foresees the solar panels being used by the students in a number of ways.
“We’re really looking to integrate the solar panels into the whole school experience,” she said.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected]