Sunshine Will Lighten the Electric Bill at Newtown Middle School

As seen in the Newtown Bee.

(Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that while Sound Solar Systems is installing the solar system at Newtown Middle School, the system is owned and being financed by Altus Power Management. The contract for the project is between the Town of Newtown and Altus Power Management. Both points, which were incorrect in the initial version of this story, have been updated.)

If all goes according to plan, in the next few weeks Newtown Middle School will not only be a place for bright young minds to shine but it will also serve as a place to harness the power of the sun.

Hundreds of three-by-five-foot photovoltaic modules sit atop the middle school’s roof eagerly awaiting inspection from the town’s electrical department, building department, and then the final evaluation of the utility company Connecticut Light and Power (CL&P).

If all goes well, the 179 kilowatt zero-emission power-producing system is projected to produce 188,460 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, which is the equivalent of powering 21 homes or powering 1,614 light bulbs for one year according to the company providing, installing, and maintaining the system for the town, Sound Solar Systems.

The Town of Newtown has agreed to purchase the solar-generated electricity from Altus Power Management (APM) at a 20 percent discounted rate of what CL&P charges as part of a power purchase agreement.

APM is able to charge a discounted rate due to subsidies. In addition to receiving money from the town of Newtown, APM also receives $149 for every zero-emission kilowatt hour it produces from CL&P as part of the Zero Emission Renewable Energy Credit (ZREC) program. The ZREC program is funded by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which is funded by Connecticut utility customers by way of a ratepayer surcharge.

The contract between Newtown and APM lasts 20 years. After the contract is up, the town may purchase the power system, renegotiate a new contract with Sound Solar Systems, or have the solar array removed from its building.

The photovoltaic modules carry a 25-year manufacturer’s warranty. The system is expected to lose efficiency over time, but should produce at no less than 85 percent efficiency for 25 years. Tony Savino, co-founder of Sound Solar Systems, felt the modules will likely last beyond their 25-year warranty.

“I think that’s a pretty low number. I think if it’s 25 years you’re looking at 35 years. I have seen systems that other people have completed that have lasted 40 years,” Mr Savino said.

The only other major components that are expected to need replacement are the two inverters, which convert the direct current coming from the photovoltaic modules into alternating current, which can be utilized by the power grid. The inverters are expected to be replaced every ten to 15 years according to Mr Savino.

Besides the cost of expected and scheduled maintenance, Mr Savino views the predictable costs of solar energy as an advantage over other variably priced energy sources.

“The sun doesn’t go up on price,” Mr Savino said. “There’s the initial cost of the system and then for 25 years we’re pretty much set on that system. We know we have to change the inverter in ten or 15 years. But we don’t have to gamble on what the cost of coal, oil, or nuclear energy are going to be.”

The initial cost of the system, including production of parts and installation, came at no cost to the Town of Newtown. According to Mr Savino, all funds were raised through private investment.

Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra said the town’s Renewable Energy Commission and grassroots support for renewable energy was largely responsible for making the project happen.

“We have a very focused Sustainable Energy Commission,” Mrs Llodra said. “If it weren’t for the local residents and volunteers in that commission it wouldn’t happen. We need the voice of the people to articulate that. It was the Sustainable Energy Commission that brought this project to the Board of Selectmen.”

Public Works Director Fred Hurley also credited the foresight of the Sustainable Energy Commission for making the project possible, referring to the commission’s input on construction of Newtown Middle School’s new roof in 2011.

“It was members of the commission who fought to get the possibility of solar included in this building,” Mr Hurley said. “If it wasn’t for them working with the Public Building and Site Commission to make sure parts of these roofs were able to accommodate solar there wouldn’t be a solar project.”

Sustainable Energy Commission member Mark Sievel saw the project as a great boon for Newtown and for the environment.

“It’s obviously a win-win,” Mr Sievel said. “We get cheap energy and we get to reduce our carbon footprint. It makes you wonder why doesn’t everybody do this?”

With the successful implementation of another solar system that powers the wastewater treatment plant in Newtown, Mr Hurley finds it likely that the town will utilize solar power in the future.

“We’re happy with what we’re seeing in the wastewater treatment plant and what we’ve seen at Newtown Middle School. So there’s a good chance you’ll see more solar projects in Newtown,” Mr Hurley said.

If the town does decide on installing additional solar systems, Mr Savino knows the sun will be ready.

“The sun’s there, it’s blasting away and you have to take advantage of those things,” he said.

The project is expected to be completed near the beginning of May, according to Sound Solar Systems.