Profiting from the sun?

The new elementary school planned in Center Grove is being designed with innovative concepts such as ample natural light features, cozy group learning areas and outdoor education labs.

But officials also are hoping a powerful feature will save the school district thousands of dollars — solar power.

To help reduce utility costs and maximize taxpayer funding, Center Grove school officials are planning to install solar panels on the grounds of the district’s future new elementary school. How big the solar field will be — and how much cost savings solar power will provide the district — rests on the fate of a bill now being heard in the Indiana General Assembly.

Officials have contacted local legislators to stress the impact the bill would have on schools such as Center Grove.

“Our point in all of this is, we are spending tax dollars here,” Center Grove Superintendent Richard Arkanoff said. “Anything that legislators can do to save tax dollars, I’d think they’d want to do. This bill, if they exempt schools, would be a great opportunity for them to show support for the taxpayers and saving dollars.”

Center Grove is planning to build a new $42 million elementary school on Morgantown Road south of State Road 144. The 116,000-square-foot school would be able to house up to 800 students and is expected to be ready in time for the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Architectural firm Lancer Beebe unveiled initial conceptual drawings of the school to board members earlier this month. Included in the drawings was a proposed field of solar panels, located on the open grassy area north of the building.

Other schools in Indiana have built similar solar fields, including Sheridan Community School Corp. and North Putnam Community School Corp. As solar power has become more affordable and more efficient, more school districts have taken advantage of it, Arkanoff said.

After speaking with the officials of those schools, Arkanoff and Center Grove chief technology officer Jason Taylor looked into how the district could take advantage as well.

“We really were intrigued by it and started investigating how we could use that to put more dollars back in the classroom,” Arkanoff said.

Indiana passed regulations in 2011 that allowed for homes, schools, small businesses and other customers that have installed solar panels to take advantage of net metering. Customers would be reimbursed by the utility company for energy that was produced and fed back onto the electricity grid.

With a solar field in place, Center Grove could generate enough power to cover the new elementary school, as well as have enough energy credits to reduce other utility payments as well, Arkanoff said.

Most utility payments come from Center Grove’s general fund, which also is used to pay for expenses such as teacher salaries, classroom equipment and supplies. Saving on utility bills would allow more funding to go towards staffing, Arkanoff said.

Calculations still are being made to determine how large the solar field would need to be, Taylor said. That will determine how much the project will cost.

“We just decided how large the building will be, and what it will look like. Now, the engineers will run calculations on what amount of energy is needed to run that type of facility at that square footage,” he said. “From there, we’ll model what an average daily usage is.”

But the effectiveness of Center Grove’s plan will be dictated by the current legislative session and one bill in particular: Senate Bill 309.

The legislation, written by State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, covers many areas of energy policy. The bill includes provisions that increases the number of people who can take advantage of net metering, Hershman said during a hearing of the House’s utilities, energy and telecommunications committee on Wednesday.

The bill also would lower the rate at which solar power is bought back by utility companies, adjusting it for improvements in solar efficiency and the current market, Hershman said during testimony. Customers with solar fields who sell back power would receive less money for the electricity they produce.

When Arkanoff and other school officials learned about the bill, they approached Hershman about their concerns. They also testified in front of the Senate hearing for the bill, describing how this bill would hurt schools, and by extension, taxpayers.

“Any public agency or governmental agency that wants to take advantage of the solar initiatives and renewable energy, and those buy-backs that are afforded to them now, it’s really imperative that our legislators continue to support that. And that will save all taxpayers dollars,” Arkanoff said.

Senate Bill 309 was passed the Senate in late February, and is now being heard in the House’s utilities, energy and transportation committee. Amendments have been made to the bill, extending the existing buy-back rate for people who currently have solar panels as well as those who install solar power in the next five years. But Center Grove officials would still like see additional changes.

“We’ve asked for them to either kill the bill, or exempt schools from the process,” Arkanoff said.

School officials including Arkanoff, Taylor and school board vice president Scott Alexander also met with State Rep. David Frizzell, a Republican who represents a portion of White River Township including Center Grove schools.

They stressed the need for the bill to exempt schools, at least for a period of time that would allow the solar field to recoup Center Grove’s initial investment. Frizzell was responsive to their concerns, and hopefully the final version of the bill will contain the exemption for schools, Alexander said.

Center Grove’s solar plans hinge on that legislation. If the bill passes and the school district receives less money to sell back that extra energy to utilities, the solar field will be designed to produce at or below the average daily usage for the new school, so that energy doesn’t go to waste, Taylor said.

But if Senate Bill 309 fails, or is changed to allow for Center Grove to sell back its extra power, the field will be built large enough to cover both the elementary school’s power needs and to create energy to sell to the utility company, in order to reduce the electricity bills the school district pays each month on its eight schools.

“We could actually offset the cost of other utilities such as water or natural gas,” Taylor said.

For the time being, plans are only being made to include solar power at the new elementary school. But if solar energy is found to be a sound money-saving strategy for the district, fields could come to other school properties, Taylor said.

“This one is hopefully a catalyst for more. If we can make it work at our current site, we’d definitely look at other facilities where we’d have the land available for the same kind of feature,” he said. “If we’re successful, we’d definitely carry this back to other schools at some point.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”At a glance” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Senate Bill 309

What: Prospective legislation that would lower the prices that utility companies pay small solar or wind power generators for their excess power.

Authors: Sen. Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek) and Sen. James Merritt (R-Indianapolis)

How does it currently work?

Since 2011, people who installed a small solar or wind power generator could take advantage of net metering, which reimbursed them for the energy that they fed back into the electrical grid. They were reimbursed at the full retail rate, helping to offset the costs of installing their own power generators.

What does the bill do in regards to renewable energy?

  • Senate Bill 309 would establish a lower rate for the excess solar or wind power that comes from small producers such as homeowners, churches and schools. Amendments to the bill state that those who have already installed solar panels or wind turbines get the existing rate until 2047.
  • Those who install power generators in the next five years could have the existing rate until 2032.
  • Anyone who installs solar or wind power after 2022 would receive a lower rate from the utility companies.

Where does it stand?

Senate Bill 309 passed the full Senate by a vote of 39 to 9 on Feb. 27. It is now being heard by the Indiana House of Representative’s utilities, energy and telecommunications committee.