Newbrook Elementary hopes to reduce energy costs with new heating system

NEWFANE — A special meeting on Oct. 23 at NewBrook Elementary School saw a record turnout, as Newfane and Brookline voters overwhelmingly approved a two-part energy proposal for the school.

One article asked for permission to enter into a solar net-metering credit purchase agreement - in which a solar developer or investor is chosen to finance, install, operate, maintain, and assume all liability for a photovoltaic system on NewBrook Elementary School property, providing discounted electricity for the school.

In the second article, the board asked for a $330,000 municipal loan to pay for a new air-to-air heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to be powered by the new solar array.

Taxpayers had already voted on and approved the HVAC system in June, but the solar proposal failed by two votes when it was first presented.

After that initial vote, a petition to reconsider the approved HVAC system was circulated and both articles were taken up again.

“When the solar article was defeated it didn't make sense to go forward with HVAC proposal,” Newfane Selectboard Chair Gary Katz explained. “That's why people wanted to re-vote. That's why the petition went in on the HVAC part of it.”

Newfane Selectboard member Chris Druke said she heard a range of concerns about the energy project.

“There were various different reasons why people felt that they wanted to look at it again,” she said. “Some people expressed concerns about taxes; some people felt that the way [the School Board] were joining solar with HVAC and the fact that they had to keep [the old boilers as] back-up didn't make viable sense.

“Some said, 'We don't know how long the school will be there,' with talk of re-districting. Some people were against more solar panels on viable land,” she added.

According to Kim Friedman, chair of the School Board Energy Committee, her view after the June meeting was that “conceptually, there was support for solar but they were uncomfortable with some details of our proposal. We didn't hear 'We don't want solar.' We heard, 'We need more details.'”

She added: “I wouldn't say the fact that there was a reconsideration reflects mass disappointment or lack of support; rather, I think it reflects our democratic process. If even a small group is discontented there is a vehicle to call for reconsideration.”

So, she said, the committee returned to the drawing board on structuring the solar project. They ended up recommending a different approach that the School Board liked and brought that to a vote in October.

Although the petition only called for reconsideration of the decision on the heat pumps, both articles were put to a vote again on Oct. 23. The solar article passed, 195 to 96.

The $330,000 loan for the HVAC system was approved for the second time by a voice vote.

According to Friedman, the wide margin with which the measure passed reflects both wide conceptual support for solar and the fact that “people felt comfortable with the research we conducted since June.”

The revised solar proposal is what's called a solar net-metering credit purchase agreement. Simply put, this arrangement means a solar developer or group of investors will pay for the system, cover costs associated with installation and maintenance and assume all liability for the solar array.

“With the arrangement we had proposed in June, the School Board would have leased a solar system from developers, and it was the leasing aspect of it that made people uncomfortable. The school would have had to make lease payments to the developer,” Friedman explained.

Under the approved plan, the developer will own and operate the solar array on land leased from the school. In exchange, the school will receive revenue from the land lease agreement - and a discounted rate on electricity.

That discount will save the school money over the long-term. That said, Friedman acknowledged that “for the next five years, taxes will go up” as the new heat exchange system is paid off.

A household in Brookline could pay $78.48 more per year on a $200,000 home; a similar homeowner in Newfane would pay $83.07 more per year.

School Board Chair Ken McFadden said he is optimistic the tax increase will come in lower.

“Here's a key part: we are now authorized to take out a loan up to $330,000. Which means if we can find a grant, or some kind of federal help, we might not use the whole $330,000. We're hoping not to,” McFadden said.

The loan amount will be paid back over five years, which “comes out to a little over 2 percent increase in taxes on the school budget. I was shooting for 1{1/2} but I couldn't do that,” McFadden said.

McFadden added that solar will save taxpayers money on its own right off the bat:

“Depending on how the contract is negotiated, [there will be] lease revenue of $2,000 to $6,000 per year. And then once it's generating electricity into the grid, Green Mountain Power buys it, we get credits, we buy it from the investors at 10 to 15 percent cheaper than what we currently pay now.”

That's an estimated $7,000 saved each year on electricity.

According to Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Steven John, “In some cases, we think it's possible to negotiate a larger benefit from a private concern at 25 percent. All this is negotiable. That's what bothered the public so much: They wanted to know the details, but the details have to be negotiated. And you can't negotiate if the details have already been voted on by the public.”

Next steps

Now that NewBrook Elementary's new energy system has been approved, the first step is to put out a request for bids on propane gas boilers to replace the school's failing oil boilers. They'll be the sole source of heat for this winter and then serve as a back-up to the air-to-air heat pumps to be installed.

John explained: “The gas replacement has to be done first because we have to have heat to get us through this winter. It's still burning carbon, which is something the board would rather not do, but we do need backup for our heat pump system.”

John said he expects the new heat pump system to be in place by the start of the next school year. A request for bids will be released in January and the project will be completed over the summer.

The photovoltaic may not happen as quickly, John said, explaining that “there is not a definite timeline because not enough is known [in order] to compare bids.”

He added, “We're in exciting times. The good news is we have all these options - but we need time to consider these options.”

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