, Salem, MA

October 22, 2011

Swampscott schools to get solar panels

By Michael Phillis

SWAMPSCOTT — By the end of the year, solar panels will pump green electricity into the town's high school and middle school, supplying up to 25 percent of their power.

Town Administrator Andrew Maylor said an agreement was reached last week with Constellation Energy to install 1,960 photovoltaic panels by the end of 2011.

"(Constellation Energy) is really pushing to get it done this year," said Victoria Masone, the town's assistant engineer. "There are a lot of tax incentives they want to capitalize on. ... Literally, I think we signed the contract on Friday, and the panels were delivered that weekend."

The town does not have to make any investment in the panels; the School Department simply committed to buying its electricity at a fixed rate from Constellation Energy, which will own the panels, for the next 20 years.

The agreed-upon fixed rate is 13.7 cents per kilowatt hour. That rate is higher than the schools currently pay; Maylor said each kilowatt hour currently costs a little under 13 cents. This may sound like a bad deal for the town, but Maylor said it is a profitable long-term investment.

"You are kind of betting (prices) are going to increase over time," he said.

Energy price modeling assumes these increases will take place, as well, and that eventually Swampscott's rate of 13.7 cents will be under market value. For example, Meridian Associates, the company that studied the feasibility of the wind turbine proposed for Winter Island in Salem, assumes electricity rates will increase by 2.5 percent each year.

"This is part of our long-term goal to reduce our energy costs and thereby make the community more financially sustainable," Maylor said.

The high school will be home to about 85 percent of the solar panel installations.

"Because the school is so new, they had the opportunity to put (the panels) wherever they could fit them," Masone said. "On the middle school, they could only put panels on the new portion of the roof."

The construction of a wind turbine in town is also being debated. A feasibility study concluded a turbine could be placed near the middle school, possibly supplying about 60 percent of the School Department's power. The wind turbine, which is still years from being approved and constructed, in combination with the solar panels, would allow the town's school district to operate on mostly green energy.

"The School Department has been a tremendous partner in this initiative," Maylor said. "It's one of the largest school (solar) installations in the state."