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Council OKs Middle School Solar Lease Project



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Council OKs Middle School Solar Lease Project

By John Voket

The Legislative Council this week approved sending a 15-year solar generation lease agreement to a town meeting August 9. That meeting, which will approve or reject the project, will be preceded by a 6 pm public hearing to take comments on the proposal to install a bank of solar panels on the roof of Newtown Middle School.

The Board of Selectmen held a special meeting several hours before the council August 1 to set that town meeting date.

Public Works Director Fred Hurley appeared before the council to explain the proposal, as he did before the Boards of Selectmen and Finance earlier in the protracted process. The multistage handling of the lease proposal is required by state law, according to First Selectman Pat Llodra, even though it will not require the town to pay any money or maintenance costs for the system.

As he has before the other boards, Mr Hurley explained that Newtown is among 84 applicants selected for the current program out of 296 applications following the successful bidding for zero renewable energy credits or ZRECs. The program has been mandated by the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) for projects in communities covered by both Connecticut Light & Power, and United Illuminating.

“PURA is recommending 20 percent alternative energy use in their generation [of power] as part of this new state project,” Mr Hurley said. But the town will not expend funds, nor be required to borrow or bond for the project, because all the hardware, installation, and maintenance for the 15-year length of the lease is covered by the vendor, Altus Power Management. If approved, the ZREC subsidy will generate about $28,000 per year to the vendor, while providing the Newtown school district with a flat 20 percent discount on the total amount of generated electricity from the middle school panels at the existing rate.

The projected savings to the town will be between $4,000 and $6,000 per year, Mr Hurley said.

“This is modest but guaranteed savings. We’ll be paying a portion of what we would have paid for electrical power generation anyway,” he said.

Council Vice Chair Mary Ann Jacob asked the public works chief to address misinformation being disseminated on local social networking sites, inferring the town is trying to circumvent the authorized process for a capital project. Mr Hurley responded that the middle school solar lease initiative is completely different than a solar project initiated by the town’s water and sewer authority.

That solar project at the town’s water and sewer treatment plant is a capital project, Mr Hurley explained, in which the authority owns the system. The middle school project differs fundamentally, he said.

“After 15 years, the vendor can come and take [the hardware] away and restore the roof. Or if the right market conditions exist, the town would be permitted to negotiate a fair market price to keep the system,” he said. If that eventuality was to occur, the town would keep or broker 100 percent of the power generated.

Mr Hurley said that the system loses about one percent of its generating capability annually, but if the system was kept online after the 15-year lease, it would remain generating at significant efficiency for 25 to 30 years or longer.

Councilman Joe Girgasky asked what would happen if the installation or removal would void the warranty on the school’s new roof.

Mr Hurley said that the vendor is required to be bonded and insured, will be required to perform the installation and removal based on the specifications outlined by the roofing installer, and would be required to restore the roof to its original condition or pay for any damages that might be incurred.

When asked by Councilman Dan Wiedemann if the town explored the prospect of owning the solar generation system outright, First Selectman Pat Llodra reminded him that a solar option was included in proposals for the middle school roof prior to its installation, but was ruled out at the time to its cost.

Mr Hurley added that the lease option was preferred because the town has no money to initiate the project under the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Council member Kathryn Fetchick asked if any extraneous equipment might interfere with construction, modular installations, or possible expansion at the middle school, and Mr Hurley replied that except for a large metal box containing the power conversion hardware, there would be no added equipment on or in the middle school building.

Mr Hurley then clarified that the 80 percent rate would be applied to both the monthly power generation and delivery charges. The only portion of the bill that would remain at 100 percent of market rate would be the demand charge. He added that the town chose Altus between two vendors that responded to a request for proposal.

He said the company offered incrementally less expensive kilowatt per hour generation charges, as well as some flexibility in its rate based on the market.

The other vendor asked to have a fixed rate in place for the 15-year duration of the program at the time a lease is signed. The voice vote passed with only Councilman George Ferguson opposing.

Councilmen Phil Carroll and Paul Lundquist were absent.

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