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Summer harvest: Sun-powered students 

A ray of hope for solar energy in the schools

The city of Dublin, Georgia, just a couple of hours up I-16, is proving that a school building powered with solar energy can save taxpayers millions of dollars on electricity bills. So, why not here?

Admittedly, I'm biased toward solar energy. For three and a half years, I worked with a Georgia-based alternative energy company and helped install solar systems on homes, churches, businesses and government buildings. In all, our small crew constructed about 1.75 megawatts of solar energy around the Southeast and Caribbean; everything from family-sized roof mounts to commercial-scale powerhouses.

Simply put, I've seen this stuff work and make solid financial sense in numerous applications. But I often wondered why Georgia schools — with their massive roofs and daytime electricity needs — seemed resistant to cheaper solar power.

"When we think about schools, we think about buildings that are square, flat and have a lot of property surrounding them," says spokeswoman Jaymie Fuentes for Conergy, a solar supplier headquartered in Germany.

"That does make them very good for solar. They typically don't have a lot of trees. So there's not going to be a lot of shading issues."

It sounds good, but only one community statewide is putting it into practice. In early March, Dublin City Schools announced plans to install roughly 4,000 solar panels on Dublin High's roof and surrounding campus, generating over a megawatt of power for the school. These renewable energy additions are expected to save area taxpayers about 40 percent on energy costs over the next 25 years.

School officials say the money saved this year — $100,000 — will keep five teachers on staff and reduce furlough days to a minimum.

"The whole plan is over a year in the making, but the entire solar panel installation will be producing power by the end of May," according to Superintendent Dr. Chuck Ledbetter.

Despite commonsense financial rationale, including the fact solar panel prices have dropped considerably in recent years, the planning and execution of the project was not easy.

And nearly illegal.

The Dublin High project is a knot of public/private partnerships and Georgia Code loopholes, but contorting around the Territorial Act of Georgia was necessary in getting solar power on the school.

Adopted in 1973, the Territorial Act gives control of the state's energy market to a single government regulated monopoly: Georgia Power.

Amongst its regulations and protections, the Act restricts private solar companies and consumers from entering into a Power Purchase Agreement, a common practice in most other states. Utilizing a PPA, a school, business or homeowner partners with a private solar company; that company puts up a solar system on the customer's structure; and the customer agrees to purchase and use the power at a standard price, usually for 20+ years.

For the customer, upfront construction costs are avoided, electricity bills are lowered to a long-term fixed rate and the private energy company — which installs and owns the system - is responsible for the upkeep.

"It's unfortunate that Georgia is one of the few states that prevents power purchase agreements, based on a reading of an archaic law," says Jack Star, a leading Savannah solar advocate. "Many schools and civic buildings would benefit as there are no up-front costs, and maintenance of the solar panels stays with the financing agency."

If Dublin City Schools had the PPA option they would have most likely taken it, but that financing model is illegal in Georgia due to the Territorial Act. In Dublin's case, however, they found a way around Georgia's antiquated restrictions, chiefly because local government is central in the process, not the private sector.

"It's the first time public bonds have been used to finance a government solar project in Georgia," says Steve Green of Greeovations, LLC. "It's a unique financing model."

Trickily, nobody is 'selling' any power; the school pays to lease the solar system on its roof and campus.

Maybe more notable is how many Dublin-area public and private entities came together to back this project. Strongly supporting it was Dublin-Laurens Development Authority, Dublin City Council, the Laurens County Commission, The City of Dublin, Dublin City Schools, Dublin High School, Mage Solar, Greenavations, LLC., Renewable Energy Equipment Leasing (REEL), the law firm Arnall Golden Gregory and practically every locally elected State representative.

Superintendent Ledbetter said simply, "It took everyone working together to make this happen."

At the solar system groundbreaking, Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald echoed Dr. Ledbetter's sentiments.

"This is the first day of tomorrow," he said. "This day represents entities coming together to work toward a common goal and to break the ice for solar in Georgia."

Absent from the groundbreaking ceremony was Georgia Power.

Considering taxpayers in Chatham County, the Dublin High solar system prompts at least a few questions. Firstly, should we be doing this with a few of our local school buildings? Saving 40 percent on electric bills and reinvesting that money into schools sounds pretty good.

Secondly, are we shortchanging our students by building "new" schools with "old" technology? LED lights, water saving devices and efficient HVAC systems are certainly a step in the right direction (all in the ESPLOST budget). But there's a whole universe of products and services when it comes to saving money through efficiencies and energy alternatives.

Thirdly, and maybe more uncertain, could our local officials and representatives get behind something with such resolve and unity? Would the financial process be too difficult?

That last question, at least, has some clarity.

In 2011, Chatham County voters resoundingly approved a second round of ESPLOST funding. This one-penny, special-purpose local option sales tax was billed as a no-brainer for local education, mainly because forty percent of the collected money comes from area tourists.

Also, ESPLOST dollars must be spent on predominantly new construction and capital improvements. This lawfully prohibits using the money for future costs of building maintenance, staffing and utilities.

Solar panels, especially discounted 40 percent by tourist dollars, can actually reduce and possibly eliminate decades' worth of taxpayer funded electricity bills, which area tourists don't help us pay for.

Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, points out that utility bills are the second-highest expense for school districts after teacher salaries.

"The economic downturn has prompted school districts to really investigate how they can reduce their energy expenses," Gutter says.

Over the past few years, SCCPSS has spent around $8 million per year on utilities.

Cal Wray, President of the Dublin-Laurens County Development Authority, says he hopes the solar move will attract more global business to the area and brand the local economy.

"It's really making us an international point for manufacturing looking to come to the United States," he says. In March 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a report on green jobs stating, in part, that manufacturing plays a strong role in the green economy. And it seems clear that manufacturing jobs are key to our nation's prosperity.

Mage Solar, a German energy company with a US manufacturing base in Dublin is providing the solar panels for the school project.

"Solar is starting to grow across the whole country. And even across Georgia it's starting to grow. But hopefully this project will accelerate that growth and make people take a look at it and consider what solar can do for them" says Joe Thomas, CEO of Mage Solar.

The BLS report also concludes that greener industries grow faster than the overall economy, states with greater green intensity have generally fared better in the current economic downturn and green jobs are accessible to workers across the education spectrum. If local entities like the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) are giving long-term tax breaks to entice companies to relocate here, why not target a durable industry that's critical to our nation's economic future and ideally suited for our current workforce?

According to a 2011 press release, Mage Solar plans to create 350 well-paying jobs for the Dublin area in five years. Putting solar panels on Chatham County schools (or any school) is no silver bullet for attracting green manufacturing jobs to our area, but it does help demonstrate that the community is serious about it.

Locally, the dizzying mix of chronic student poverty, mandated teacher curriculum and entrenched political interests proves a formidable reality.

But, aside from saving money, solar technology, in conjunction with a commitment to sustainable practices, can potentially be an attractive attribute for families or businesses considering a move to our area.

While safety and a quality education are the ultimate standards of a school, incorporating alternative energy in buildings and curriculum could further solidify and polish the image of SCCPSS.

It's pretty clear that utilizing solar electricity doesn't make sense in everybody's situation. A homeowner, for example, with difficult access to upfront capital and a heavily shaded residence might have little use for it.

But powering local schools with solar energy can save taxpayers millions on electric bills and aid diversification of the local economy. Should we still regard solar power as an educational extravagance?

"We feel like it's good stewardship of the taxpayer money and also good stewardship of the Earth God gave us," Dr. Ledbetter says. "Over time, as power rates go up, it saves us even more money."

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Jeremy Scheinbart

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