Towns like solar, concerned about cost

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Aug. 31, 2008

With a task force’s recent recommendation that the Guilford school district build a new high school and eventually replace Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School, the town could be facing hundreds of millions of dollars in construction in coming years.

And with town residents footing much of the bill, every dollar counts. That fact can make it difficult for towns to go forward with projects that have alternative energy systems, which include significant up-front costs.

But with energy prices making a larger dent in town budgets, alternative energy is figuring more prominently in discussions for new building projects and retrofitting existing facilities. The state’s Clean Energy Fund offers incentives that can cover up to half the cost of purchasing and installing solar power systems, and officials said they are seeing more towns taking advantage of the assistance.

Guilford Board of Education Chairman William Bloss said energy efficiency has been an important part of discussions about the possible replacement or renovation of the high school and middle school.

“Everyone understands the problem of the large up-front costs versus the long-term savings,” Bloss said. “It depends on whether we’re as a community and as a society going to look at the future in one-year slices, or are we going to look at it in decades-long slices, and long-term planning requires a recognition that there is something beyond 2009.”

As the Board of Education prepares for a decision on how to proceed — which it is scheduled to make Sept. 15 — members have been holding item-by-item discussions on how to prioritize resources. The project will eventually go before voters as a bond resolution.

“I’m sure there are people who would be much more likely to support a project if it was green and there are some people who couldn’t care less probably, they just want a decent room and the green aspects of it are not that important,” Bloss said. “Ultimately what happens is going to be the will of the people, so I guess we’ll find out how important it is.”

A recent policy from the Board of Selectmen requires town agencies and commissions to consider green building for new projects. The policy, passed this month, “endorses the principle that long-term cost/benefit considerations shall be considered over short-term budgetary goals in municipal decision-making” and directs officials to include energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in their planning.

North Branford Town Manager Richard Branigan said it seems that such measures have become increasingly important in the past year. While the plans for the renovate-as-new project at North Branford Intermediate School, which is under construction, do not include renewable energy sources, Branigan said the town is seriously considering solar and geothermal energy for replacing Atwater Memorial Library, scheduled to begin next spring.

Branigan said that incentives from the state, as well as the United Illuminating Co., may make it economically feasible to pursue alternative energy sources.

“Energy costs in general have skyrocketed over the last year or so beyond what people would have predicted safely a couple of years ago, so there’s definitely an incentive to look at it now more than a couple of years ago,” he said.

But the Town Council, while directing the architects to look into alternative-energy options, has stressed the importance of sticking to the project’s $4.7 million budget. The town is rebuilding Edward Smith Library in Northford, which does not use alternative energy.

“That is the challenge to try and keep it within the budget and to look at the alternatives, and there isn’t a lot of money to go around for these types of things,” he said. “Fortunately, for solar at least, there are some funds available at the state level and between that and the incentives potentially that may be offered by UI, it may make it worth our while to go forward with it.”

Branigan said that, based on early estimates, the up-front costs of the renewable energy sources could take anywhere from two to 10 years to pay back the investment.

Bob Wall, director of energy market initiatives with the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, said that many schools are now installing solar panels on existing buildings. The Clean Energy Fund, which was set up by the General Assembly, can cover about 50 percent of the cost of such projects.

Wall said that solar panels typically cost from $7,000 to $8,500 per kilowatt, depending on the size of the project. For a school’s energy needs, that can translate to an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“A typical commercial user might not get payback for nine to 12 years or so, but by combining our incentives with the Department of Education (which also offers some incentives), you can really reduce that to something in the three to seven years or less,” he said.

He added that 83 out of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns are now participating in the fund’s Clean Energy Communities program, meaning that they have made a pledge to obtain at least 20 percent of their electricity from “clean, renewable sources” by 2010. In addition, starting in January, any school project receiving money from the state will need to conform to certain energy efficiency standards.

“We certainly live in a time where energy costs are putting a lot of pressure on municipal governments,” he said. “It may be that there are some districts that decide that this is unfortunately not an option they can pursue at this time, but those taking a longer view recognize this is an important symbol of a school’s commitment to sustainability. … Ultimately we’d like to see all the new school construction have at least some renewable systems.”

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