January 01, 2014 - After their first year of operation, the Mehlville School District's solar panels are on pace to save the district money on utilities just as predicted by officials, who will add more panels this year.
The Board of Education voted 6-1, with Secretary Rich Franz opposed, at its December meeting to expand the district's solar energy program to the roofs of three more schools.
Franz voted for the first set of solar panels last year and said he supports solar energy, but he wants more time to gauge the success of the current panels before adding more.
Under solar-panel leasing arrangements that are popular with schools and fire districts, districts can lease solar panels with no up-front cost and save money on utility expenses, even with the lease payment factored in.
The plans are especially popular now, with rebates available from Ameren Missouri that allow the solar company to pay less for the solar panels.
The district will install panels at Mehlville Senior High School, St. John's School and Buerkle Middle School, using the same vendor selected through a competitive bidding process last year, St. Louis-based StraightUp Solar.
District and StraightUp Solar officials chose to pursue more panels now because one of the Ameren rebates available to StraightUp was scheduled to run out at the end of the year.
This time, StraightUp offered flexible options for leases, including shorter terms and a lower monthly rate: 10 years rather than the 20 years of the existing agreement, and $139 in rent a month rather than the current $186 a month.
At the end of the 10 years, the district can buy the solar panels at fair market value and continue to use them as long as they last or let StraightUp remove them. The panels are warrantied for 25 years.
StraightUp also gave the district the option of converting its existing 20-year lease on its current panels to a 10-year agreement, while keeping the same $186 monthly rate.
The board voted 6-1, with Franz again dissenting, to convert last year's agreement to a 10-year lease.
The previous 20-year agreement was slated to save the district roughly $130,000 in energy costs over the decades of the lease.
With the new set of panels, the district projects it will save $42,621 over the next decade, and with the conversion of the first solar project to a 10-year lease with no lease payments from years 11 to 20, the savings on the existing panels could more than double to $302,782 over the course of 20 years.
The estimates are based on the cost of energy increasing by 5 percent a year.
"Again, we feel it's a win-win because if we're saving some money, we're still saving taxpayer dollars," Superintendent Eric Knost said. "Any amount of savings, when it's no out-of-pocket cost up front — it just makes sense to at least consider."
Director of Facilities Steve Habeck determined which schools could handle solar panels based on the age of roofs, since newer roofs will need less maintenance during the decade of the leases.
District officials do not plan any further solar expansion due to maintenance that may be needed on the remaining schools' older roofs, Knost said.
The existing solar panels are on the roofs of Hagemann Elementary, Bernard Middle, Oakville Senior High, Beasley Elementary and the Witzel Alternative Academy and are used by some students for class projects.
Franz voted in favor of installing the panels last year, in what was a 6-0 unanimous vote, with board member Mark Stoner absent. Stoner now serves as board president.
Franz said he likes the up-front money saved, but wants to test out the district's existing equipment longer before expanding the program. Some solar companies are also not viable, he noted, pointing to the high-profile bankruptcy of solar manufacturer Solyndra.
"I would assume that one of the reasons you want to do a 10-year lease instead of a 20-year is that this isn't the healthiest industry in the world?" Franz asked Dane Glueck, president of StraightUp.
StraightUp had also offered the district another 20-year plan, but Knost said he preferred the flexibility of the shorter lease.
"There may have been an implied statement that we offered a 10-year lease because we are concerned about the viability of the solar industry past 10 years," Glueck said. "We left a 20-year option on the table, and this is not our 'take this because we're not going to be around' answer, this is another option to give more flexibility to the district if you so choose to take that.
"But not because we are concerned about our viability past 10 years."
Last year, the board issued a request for proposals, or RFP, for a solar vendor, with Brightergy and other solar companies submitting proposals. The district selected StraightUp because it was competitive on price, offered better, American-made equipment and service and was the only company that offered to install Tigo Maximizers, monitors that allow the district to monitor the panels and can be used for educational purposes, Knost said.