Helen Morgan no longer a candidate for solar panels

Project Ok'd in 2012, installation to resume

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  • The canopy solar panel installation at the Merriam Avenue School in Newton is shown in September 2012. Merriam Avenue is one of the schools in the county that has been part of the movement to generate solar energy. Photo by Jennifer Jean Miller.

By Jennifer Jean Miller

— The Helen Morgan School has been nixed from the roster for a solar panel project that had been planned to aid Sparta schools in saving money on energy costs, while adhering to more environmentally-friendly energy practices.

The contractor withdrew the school from the project due to a Feb. 18 incident when ceiling tiles buckled in the annex section of the building from the weight of accumulated snow and ice on the roof, Business Administrator Linda Alvarez said at the Sparta Board of Education work session on Monday, May 19.

Helen Morgan School, which houses the town's fourth and fifth graders, was slated for an 85 kilowatt roof-mounted solar panel system, which would have generated roughly half of the school's energy.

School engineers advised against panels on the school because the recommended load rating is too narrow when snow and ice were added into the equation, with the rating at a 3.9 and Helen Morgan's capacity at 3.8.

The board of education gave a green light to the project in September 2012. At the time it was estimated to save the district approximately $60,000 annually over a 15-year period.

With the Helen Morgan School now no longer included, the savings has dropped to approximately $38,000 per year, though that is not guaranteed.

"The savings to us is reduced consumption," said Alvarez.

Sunlight General Capital is the developer handling the project, which will install three types of panels throughout the district, canopy/carport types, ground-mounted and roof panels.

The Alpine School is planned to house a 350 kilowatt system comprised of both canopy and rooftop solar panels, for a combined 86 percent of the school's energy derived from the system. The middle school will host all three types of panels, harnessing 36 percent of its energy from the 425 kilowatt system.

The high school's 450 kilowatt system would supply 12 percent of the facility's power.

The Mohawk Avenue School was never recommended as a project participant because the site was not considered ideal for solar panels.

While the board had approved the project nearly two years ago, some questions erupted between several members when Frank Favichia raised concerns about the look of the ground solar panels at the middle school.

Favichia said he is not against the use of solar panels, but indicated that his workplace has implemented ground panels and he is not pleased with how they disrupt the landscape.

"We really should rethink aesthetics," said Favichia.

Favichia said the panels could present an eyesore. He also suggested rolling out one to two buildings when beginning the project and not all at once.

Alvarez said that changing the scope of the project would breach the contract.

Favichia pointed out that with Helen Morgan eliminated from the picture, the contract had also changed and it was the first time the current board discussed the matter.

"If the board has any reservations about this project, I would need to know," said Superintendent Dennis Tobin.

Board Member Richard Bladek questioned Favichia about what had changed his perspective since they both had been in favor of the project two years ago, including the types of panels used at the middle school.

Favichia said there was no change, except there were seven new people on the board who had not been present when the initial decision was made. He then recapped his take on the aesthetics of the panels at his workplace.

"I see it every day as I drive to my company and it's ugly," Favichia said.

Board Member Todd Muth asked if county snowplows could throw snow onto the panels while plowing and damage them.

Alvarez responded that the solar panels were adequately distanced from the road and would not present an issue with the plows.

Board Member Kim Yeomans also asked how snow weight impacts the panels. Tobin said Keith Gourlay, the district's building and grounds supervisor, would reach out to the school's architect.

Yeomans verified the 15-year power placement plan is at no cost to the district. There is an educational component as well, Alvarez said, with kiosks stationed in the schools so students can monitor the schools' energy consumptions and savings statistics.

Board Member Brenda Beebe said she did not mind the use of the ground-mounted solar panels at the middle school.

"If it saves money to go to the students, I don't care," Beebe said.

No date has been set for the implementation of the project.

Alvarez said the district is part of a county-wide solar initiative.

The installation has been delayed because of a lawsuit the developer was involved in. The lawsuit has since concluded and the developer is resuming its installation schedule, Alvarez said.

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