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Is solar power coming to Kingsport City Schools?

Rick Wagner • Jul 9, 2017 at 6:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Electricity-generating solar panels could be coming to city school rooftops and grounds at no cost to taxpayers, making money in addition to power.

Or is that too good to be true?

International energy company Ameresco wants Kingsport City Schools, and possibly the rest of city government, to plug into solar power. It is proposing that the Board of Education approve a contract for a free “30 percent” evaluation to determine the options and feasibility of a combined program of solar panels and conversion to energy-saving LED lights.

Such a contract might go before the board for a vote after review by City Attorney Mike Billingsley and Ameresco officials. 

“I think part of being world class is also being world conscious,” BOE member Carrie Upshaw said at Thursday’s school board meeting.

However, BOE member Todd Golden questioned why the idea is so grand for the school system when solar energy has had a hard timing catching on in residential areas. He also questioned how the cost of converting to LEDs and other up-front expenses could be borne at no cost to the schools.

Bill Shedden, supervisor of maintenance and custodial services, estimated the cost of converting to LEDs at $1.5 million. Shedden was working for the Hawkins County school system when it put solar panel arrays at 20 schools.

“Residential solar has not really come unto its own yet,” said Miles Mennell, who does business development for Ameresco. She said the board could move to a 60 percent and 90 percent level but would have to pay $40,000 at each of those benchmarks to opt out of the plan. She said a 30 percent level project development study would give the system options for funding the work and for ownership of the solar panels. She also said Ryan McReynolds, assistant city manager of operations, is interested in the program and the city could “piggyback” with the school system.

“We think that we can bring a project to you that will not require any type of cash infusion,” Mennell said of the company, which did a project for Knox County schools and government working with TVA. That project is to pay the county $875,000 over 20 years. TVA also serves Hawkins County, where the same company that put in the school system’s solar panels is to install solar panels at the old TVA Phipps Bend Nuclear Plant site near Surgoinsville.

However, she said, AEP is even more interested in solar power and that one option is that AEP will install and maintain the solar system and install the LEDs. Knox County received a $12.5 million system for no investment of local dollars and is looking at $30 million in energy savings.

Mennell, based on initial work by the company, said that 10 locations have been identified as having the potential for roof or ground-level solar panels, including Adams, Johnson and Washington elementary schools and Robinson Middle School. The cost could be borne by federal or Tennessee low-interest bonds, she said.

She said the solar and LED project combined could reduce annual electricity usage by $440,000 to $660,000 a year or roughly the greenhouse gases created by 630 automobiles. The system would need 3.5 megawatt capacity with the current lights or 2.3 megawatt capacity with more efficient LEDs. She and Shedden explained that the electricity generation capacity of the solar panels needs to be roughly equal to the system’s power usage.

“You’re not going to get paid for it,” Shedden said of getting much for electricity in excess of the school system’s usage, although Mennell said AEP might be open to more power generation. Shedden and Chief Finance Officer David Frye said options would include using the power generated, selling it to AEP or giving it to AEP and taking a reduced power rate. She said in any event Ameresco would guarantee a certain level of savings.

Shedden estimated the power bills for the system total about $2 million a year, $1.5 million for electricity and the rest for natural gas, so the savings could be one-fourth or more of the total power bill. Golden said the project should not be considered unless it at least breaks even in the long run.

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