Schools Buying Into Solar Energy Savings

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

The Rocky Hill School’s new array of 120 solar panels is expected to produce 41,000 kilowatt-hours annually, and over the system’s lifetime it’s expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 725 tons. (Rocky Hill School)

The Rocky Hill School’s new array of 120 solar panels is expected to produce 41,000 kilowatt-hours annually, and over the system’s lifetime it’s expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 725 tons. (Rocky Hill School)

EAST GREENWICH, R.I. — New solar panels atop the Alan F. Flynn Jr. Academic Center at Rocky Hill School cut energy costs in their first month. The solar photovoltaic (PV) array of 120 panels is expected to produce 41,000 kilowatt-hours annually and provide 20 percent of the upper school building’s electricity for the next 25 years.

Over the system’s lifetime, it will generate more than a million kilowatt-hours of electricity and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 725 tons, according to school officials.

“Our first bill showed energy use went down between 25 and 30 percent of kilowatt-hours compared to the same period last year,” said Peter Hanney, the private school’s director of communications and marketing.

The independent day school is the first of four educational institutions turning on alternative power made possible through grants from the state Office of Energy Resources (OER) and Commerce RI’s Renewable Energy Fund.

Projects at the Community Preparatory School and Meeting Street School in Providence and West Warwick High School also were awarded grants. West Warwick will use its two grants to install PV systems on both its field house and ice rink, for a total annual savings of $31,000, according to the OER.

Savings can amount to between 25 percent and 50 percent depending on the size of the project, according to Christopher Kearns, OER chief of program development.

While Rocky Hill is the first up and running project funded by these grants, others are working on site redesigns, roof upgrades and other components, Kearns said.

“Most of the projects will be up by the end of the year,” he said.

Schools were required to submit an application through an open request for proposal process outlining projected costs, funds being leveraged and educational tie-ins for evaluation to secure funding.

Rocky Hill received $104,000 from the OER and $32,191 from Commerce RI. Newport Renewables donated the development cost for the project.

Beyond savings, the project includes an educational side that features a weather station and technology that lets students track the amount of electricity being generated.

For the 300 students from preschool to grade 12 on the 84-acre campus along the shores of Narragansett Bay, it’s part of a multi-pronged effort to run a sustainable campus and to instill environmental stewardship into the student body, Hanney said.

The OER Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency for RI Schools program inaugural year’s $1.6 million was made available to K-12 private and public schools and funded through Rhode Island’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Added to that were grants from Commerce RI based on solar watts installed.

In all, $622,250 in OER funding was awarded to install PV systems ranging in size from 33 to 235 kilowatts.

Kearns said schools are recognizing the advantages and cost savings of renewable energy and upgrades in technology that improve energy efficiency.

“We were encouraged by the level of response and interest to the RGGI school program, which is why we’re continuing it with another $1.3 million for 2015 to be released before the end of the year,” he said.