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March 8, 2010

Creative Deal Allows School To Flip Switch On Solar Power

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Photovoltaic cells line the rooftops of several buildings on the Middlebury campus of private Westover School. The solar electric system will cut the nonprofit school's energy bill, while the state and federal tax credits generate income for Westover's commercial partners

A private girls’ high school in Middlebury flipped the switch last month on a 520-panel solar power system that will account for at least 25 percent of the electricity use on campus and save an estimated 15 percent on the school’s annual utility bill.

It’s a good deal for the Westover School but it’s also a good investment for its partners. And it’s a tribute to emerging business models in the green technology field.

The deal — which would have cost Westover $1 million without a partner — represents an ambitious collaboration among the school; Wilton-based Alteris Renewables; Solar Power Partners, Inc. in Mill Valley, Calif., and the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.

Like all nonprofits, Westover faced a financial hurdle to going solar because it can’t take advantage of federal and state tax credits to lower the cost of the installation.

“The partnership in this project between government, private industry and a nonprofit was one of the most exciting parts of this enterprise,” said Ann Pollina, head of school. “I believe it’s a model many could emulate in environmental work. The project cost was partly borne by a grant for the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.”

“Federal tax rebates married to real entrepreneurship on the part of Solar Power Partners and the agency of Alteris enabled us to enter into a contract that gave Solar Power Partners the rights to the power and Westover the commitment to purchase it at reduced rates,” said Pollina.

Westover worked out a 20-year power purchase agreement with Solar Power Partners that gives the independent solar power producer the rights to own, operate and maintain the system. Through the agreement, electricity that is generated by the panels gets sold back to the school at a fixed rate for the life of the contract.

Westover School, a 100-year-old boarding school with 200 students in grades 9-12, installed the new panels on the roof of the main building and athletic center. The nonprofit already had 8,800-square-feet of energy-efficient panels on the roof of its performing arts center constructed in 2008.

The solar power system will produce an estimated 180,487 kilowatts in the first year of operation, which is equivalent to annual emissions from 14,600 gallons of gas or 25 passenger vehicles.

“Combined with our other conservation efforts, including a co-generator, our new system will help us reduce the electricity we consume from the grid by 37.5 percent, results that we can see already.” Pollina said.

During the sunny days when school is not in session, Westover will sell excess energy to Connecticut Light & Power.

“Westover sees a savings on their overall electrical bill, hedging a portion of their bill against rates that may rise,” said Powell. “The opportunity in partnering with Westover to develop their solar project meant that we could continue to build our successful education institution track record and expand our project base to the East Coast.”

Since its inception in 2006, Solar Power Partners has completed more than 40 solar power projects; the company has worked with six schools and universities and said it has more lined up, all using power purchase agreements.

Solar Power Partners contracted with Alteris Renewables to design, engineer, build and maintain the system.

“Schools are a very important sector that we serve,” said Ron French, president of the solar division at Alteris Renewables.

“With the ability to offer Power Purchase Agreements, these not-for-profit institutions can now install solar energy installations and save money since the third-party owner, in this case Solar Power Partners, can monetize the tax credits that would be otherwise missed.”

Alteris Renewables has installed solar energy systems for more than 150 schools across the Northeast and administered the Solar on Schools program over the past decade, which helped put up many of the smaller installations.

Under the terms of the power purchase pact, the school was not required to fork over hefty start-up cash to build the system; Westover is also using its clean energy initiative as part of its Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) curriculum.

Westover also competed in the annual Green Cup Challenge last month, challenging other schools across the nation to achieve the lowest electrical meter reading.

Originally designed to raise awareness about energy conservation and climate change, the Green Cup Challenge supports efforts to incorporate their school’s green features into their curriculum.

Since the Green Cup Challenge was launched in 2006 more than 124 schools in 24 states have reduced their aggregated carbon emissions by 2.5 million pounds, the equivalent of taking 220 cars off the road for one year.

“Competing against other schools in the Green Cup Challenge for the lowest electrical meter readings heightened our awareness of the amount of energy we’re saving with our new solar photovoltaic system,” said Pollina..

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