Solar farm at Algoma School District is saving on energy bills, official says
ALGOMA – Nearly seven months in, the Algoma School District already is seeing the benefits of going a little greener — or maybe really, really bright, sunshine-y yellow.
Since Sept. 30, the district has generated some of its electricity from an array of 408 active solar panels installed last summer on the school grounds off Feld Street.
And, although the school's director of business services, Jason Melotte, said it's hard to calculate exactly the percentage of power the solar farm is providing to the school buildings, he noted the district's electric bill has dropped by $600 to $800 a month since the system went on line, demonstrating its usefulness and efficiency.
Melotte gave a rough estimate of 12% to 15% of the power coming from the panels, while McKinstry, the company that designed and built the array, estimates that percentage could go as high as 38.5%. The 185.6-kilowatt system is expected to provide 253 megawatt-hours (MWh) of solar energy each year, a press release from McKinstry said.
"We're generating a pretty substantial amount of power," Melotte said. "Face it, our buildings are huge, and we use a lot of power."
Melotte said the district had a few solar panels for about 10 years but those were just a demonstration system similar to many other school districts across the state. Now, Melotte believes Algoma is the only school district in Kewaunee and neighboring Door and Manitowoc counties with this size of a solar farm, and it's located in a space on the school grounds that Melotte said was doing nothing more than getting its grass cut.
The district saw the need to reduce its carbon footprint, and the need to do something that involved renewable energy, as reasons for the project, Melotte said, but this past year was the first time those ideas became financially feasible.
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School district officials first met about six years ago with representatives from McKinstry, a national construction and energy services firm with 25 offices from Atlanta to the West Coast, including in Milwaukee and Madison.
But the cost-versus-benefits analysis didn't work for the school until the cost of the solar array decreased and the district was able to obtain grants to help offset the cost. Specifically, a $21,564 grant came from the Renewable Energy Competitive Incentive Program offered by Focus on Energy, an alternative energy program funded by a group of Wisconsin utilities, and $20,000 from the Renewable Energy Grants for Non-Profits program at WPPI Energy, a Sun Prairie-based wholesale energy supplier that counts Algoma Utilities among its customers.
Melotte said taking those factors and the savings in the power bill into account, the total cost of the solar farm, $403,153 before the two grants, will be paid back in a maximum of 17 years, more likely 15. Previously, the payback would have taken 20 to 22 years. The amount not covered by the grants will come from the school's general fund.
"We looked into solar a few years back but the financials didn't work at the time," Melotte said. "This is the first time it made financial sense."
The solar farm isn't the only work McKinstry performed for the school, Melotte added. The company also replaced three aging boilers that Melotte described as being "the size of an SUV" with two that are the size of refrigerators, automated and sited underground.
Plus, Melotte said the school chose McKinstry because the company guarantees its work.
"If we don't save the predicted amount of money, they pay the difference," he said.
But so far, school officials are pleased with the results. Melotte told of a call he received from Algoma Utilities about a month ago to let him know that over one weekend, the solar farm generated more electricity than the buildings used in that time.
"It's a good step toward reducing our footprint and reducing our costs," Melotte said.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Solar farm at Algoma School District is saving on energy bills, official says