By N. R. Mallery
Norwich Solar Technologies (NST) has been long interested in education as a driving force for widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies. It comes as no surprise that projects for schools have become a large portion of NST’s business. To date, they have built or contracted to build ten solar projects for schools in the area, and expect to keep the projects coming.
Troy McBride and Joel Stettenheim co-founded the company. “When Troy and I founded Norwich Solar Technologies, we had both been educators and saw the power of education as a key to our clean energy future,” said Stettenheim, now Norwich Solar Technologies’ president. “We adults often think of solar as cutting edge and novel. But our hope is that kids will grow up wondering why we used to dig up and burn resources for so much of our electricity. Solar needs to be mainstream, the default rather than the exception. Helping make that happen is what gets us out of bed each morning.”
As part of these solar arrays, Norwich designs and provides educational materials for schools including interactive components that can be easily integrated into a school’s curriculum. McBride, now Chief Technology Officer, commented, “There is great material on renewable energy out there that we can help schools to access and bring into their lesson plans; teachers up here are often aware of them and may include discussions of renewable energy in their classes. What we can bring is that hands-on, on-site laboratory that really helps it to come to life for kids. At this point, we can provide lesson materials about renewable energy to all grade levels, with students able to do detailed experiments using the materials specific to the Norwich solar arrays.”
The cost of solar energy systems has dropped by nearly 70% in the last seven years making them increasingly affordable for all users. It happens, however, that schools, like other non-profit organizations, do not qualify for the biggest incentive for solar, the 30% federal tax credit for investments in renewable energy systems. This is because non-profit organizations do not pay tax that can be reduced. So even at low costs, directors of a school in favor of renewable energy may have to think hard about the costs.
“Funding these projects is a crucial piece to making solar a true win-win-win solution for schools,” said John Langhus, who arranges project funding for Norwich Solar Technologies.“Schools can have zero upfront costs and immediately save money on electricity when we bring in a solar investor. The solar investor can take advantage of the tax credits, own the array, and share the economic benefits of the solar system with the customer for several years.” In the past, such arrangements were challenging to develop for projects smaller than 500 kilowatt (kW), a large system. But now, NST has partners who are willing to fund projects less than 100 kW. “We can now fund pretty much any size school at a price that provides the school a discount on their power and the solar investor a fair return on their investment,” said Langhus. “Plus we always provide a purchase option after the tax period, so that the school can buy it directly in a few years if it wants to.”
Here are short descriptions of several of NST’s school projects to date:
Four schools in the Bradford, Vermont area have solar that is installed or underway. Thetford Elementary School (TES) is a public school serving about 200 students. Norwich installed a 140-kW project for the school in 2014, sited just down the road from the school on land that hosts the septic leach-field. “The array is close to the school so classes can come down,” said Stettenheim. “At the same time, it is hard to see the array from the road, so it’s nicely blended in with the surroundings.”
Oxbow High School with River Bend Technical Center, Bradford Middle School, and Newbury Elementary are also in the Orange East Supervisory Union. When administrators in the Union, such as Assistant Superintendent Keith Thompson, saw the savings that schools could achieve by hosting solar projects, they solicited bids for projects and ultimately chose Norwich Solar Technologies. The Norwich team had met Thompson during the Thetford Elementary project and was very excited at the opportunity to work with him again. The project was proposed to be 650 kW across two locations, but the smaller section will wait until next year when the state’s net-metering cap is raised. Work will commence this month on the larger component, a 500-kW array to be located on the grounds of Oxbow High School and will include support from River Bend Technical Center students. The project will allocate electricity to each of the three participating schools, which will together form a net-metering group. The electricity generated will save the schools significant money relative to the prevailing electricity price.
Thompson pointed out the educational advantage. “The solar array is being made into part of the curriculum for math and science,” he said. “It is already used for Thetford’s fifth and sixth grade students and will also be used at high school level, once it is installed.”
The project was designed to meet nearly all of the school’s load, on a dollar-basis, taking advantage of Green Mountain Power’s “solar adder” that paid solar customers an extra six cents for each kilowatt hour (kWh) produced, relative to the ordinary residential rate. TES did not take advantage of Norwich’s funding capabilities, but instead was able to secure a significant grant from the state of Vermont thanks to the hard work of its school board members.
The Mountain School of Milton Academy is a small independent semester program that provides about 45 students per semester from across the country the opportunity to live and work on an organic farm in Vershire, Vermont. Now, with help from Norwich Solar Technologies, The Mountain School also derives most of its power from solar energy. Norwich’s project is 83 kW, which combines with existing rooftop solar to offset all of their electricity costs. The school has a full environmental dashboard and is already using the solar system as a teaching aid.
Kimball Union Academy (KUA) is getting ready for its fourth Norwich Solar Technologies solar array in two years. A private boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, KUA is responsible for over 300 students. Their first solar project was a 50-kW net-metering project on one of the campus’ newest buildings, Miller Bicentennial Hall. “This was an early project for us before we had the funding relationships we have now. As a result, one of our employees decided to finance the array, partly to help the school adopt green energy and partly because it was a good investment,” says Stettenheim, himself a KUA alumnus. Since then, KUA has constructed a 120-kW array on one of their fields, and they are about to break ground on a smaller 70-kW array to supplement the first array on Miller Hall. They will also end the year placing a small system on a new residence hall.
Cardigan Mountain School (CMS) is a boys’ independent boarding school for boys grades six through nine, located in Canaan, New Hampshire, with over 200 students. After considering several possible options for solar energy development, CMS went big, selecting NST to build a 963-kW solar array right on its campus. “We are very proud of this project,” said McBride. “When completed, this array will produce about two-thirds of the amount of electricity used by CMS each year. It’s a really strong commitment.”