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Kingsport school board to consider next step toward solar, energy savings contract

Rick Wagner • Updated Nov 28, 2018 at 2:04 PM

KINGSPORT — Could Dobyns-Bennett High School have new solar carports to go along with its new Regional Science and Technology Center?

It’s too early to say for sure, but that’s one possibility the Board of Education discussed during a work session Tuesday night with Ameresco sales representative Mike Norris and Kingsport City Schools’ Bill Shedden, supervisor of maintenance and custodial services.

The BOE at its Dec. 11 meeting is to vote on a proposal to go to the next step with Ameresco, which is seeking to perform energy-efficient lighting upgrades, install a solar system partly on and partly off the grid and make some heating and cooling efficiency improvements. The board approved a contract with Ameresco back in May. In June, a retired engineer urged the system to pursue solar.

Unlike free preliminary work so far that reached a 30 percent threshold of the project, further work to get to 60 percent could cost the school system $30,000. That is if Ameresco determines the project is still financially feasible but the board declines to move forward. One board member said he is concerned about the overall proposal.

Norris assured the board that the plan would not result in the school system generating more than the maximum level of solar power American Electric Power would agree by contract to purchase from select buildings. In that case, the power would go out onto the grid but the school system would not be reimbursed for generating it.

WHAT WOULD THE CARPORT PROPOSAL ENTAIL?

“We would put up actual carports with solar panels on the roof,” Norris told the board when asked about the proposal shown in an artist’s rendering from above.

Board member Eric Hyche said his initial reaction to the idea of putting the solar carports in front of the new $20 million addition and front door to D-B was “not favorable.” Todd Golden said, “I like the idea, just not in front of the building.” And Susan Lodal questioned the wisdom of asking teenage drivers to park between carport supports.

However, Norris said the carport would have center poles supporting a canopy roof of solar panels on each side and that Shedden wanted to present the idea to the board. Members said they’d want to see what it would look like from street or sidewalk level. Shedden said he also has looked at solar playground canopies for Adams Elementary and solar carports for Jackson Elementary but that judging by the board’s reception to the D-B carports, the Jackson idea might be a lost cause.

WHAT ARE OTHER BOARD CONCERNS?

Golden, who will be out of town and not voting at the Dec. 11 meeting, said he’s concerned what would happen if Ameresco or one of the solar equipment providers went out of business before the school system owns the panels in 22 years. Norris said some of the warranties for the panels would be in the form of insurance policies and that he is confident the companies from which Ameresco buys are financially sound and will be around for the long haul.

The Massachusetts-based Ameresco has been sued by an Illinois school district for allegedly failing to monitor, and pay the difference, if savings didn’t cover solar program costs as promised, which is what Norris has repeated told the Kingsport BOE his company would do. Another Illinois lawsuit was filed in 2013 by a school district there. In addition, a lighting supplier sued Chicago in late 2017 for not accepting bids from companies other than the one chosen by Ameresco for a city LED project.

WHAT ARE OTHER DETAILS?

Whether any solar carports are built or not, Norris said that would not affect the overall feasibility or financial attractiveness of the plan.

Most of the panels would be placed on rooftops, except with the possible exception of ground panels at Washington Elementary. The build would cost the school system about $10 million over 22 years and another $10 million in interest, Golden said, with the system owning the panels outright after year 22 until year 30. The life expectancy of the panels is about 25 years.

In summary, the system would have no upfront cost for the solar and LED lighting projects, with a first-year savings of $68,121, a cumulative total of $1,498,655 at year 22 and $18,126,235 at year 30.

Among schools on a net meter plan would be Washington, Jefferson and Johnson elementaries; Robinson Middle; D-B and the Reserve Officers Training Corps building on campus; and the Palmer Early Learning Center. That means they would provide extra power to the grid and be reimbursed by AEP up to a maximum point, while buildings not on a net meter plan would simply use the power they generated when they produced it. The non-net meter buildings would be Lincoln, Adams, Roosevelt and Jackson elementaries and Sevier Middle.

However, Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse and board members indicated the solar focus should be taken away from Jackson and Lincoln, which the system plans to close in a few years. Those two zones would shift to the Sevier Middle building after Sevier moves to the Sullivan North High and Middle schools building, which KCS has bought and expects to take take possession of in 2021.

In addition, Moorehouse suggested North be part of the study. Other factors include the pending roof replacements needed at Robinson Middle and Kennedy Elementary, although Norris said the contract likely would include one free relocation of panels to another school or for installation of a new roof. He said solar panels will make roofs last longer because they keep some sunlight off the roof surface. 

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