By ERIN ROLL
Montclair’s schools are doing ventilation and air conditioning upgrades ahead of the anticipated reopening in November. But the district has much bigger plans beyond that: an $11 million energy efficiency overhaul in all of its school buildings.
The school district is entering into an Energy Savings Improvement Program, which would include a series of projects in which the schools take money that would usually go toward utilities payments and use it to make energy improvements over the next three years.
At the completion of the project, Montclair schools could save money on their long-term utility bills, as well as earn money by installing solar panels on school roofs and selling the resulting energy to solar power vendors.
On Sept. 21, the Board of Education gave the go-ahead for the district’s architect, Parette Somjen, to put together the design documents, and for Honeywell, the lead contractor, to start screening subcontractors, who would be hired through the bidding process.
All of the projects in the program are expected to go out for bid in November, with construction to begin in April. The work is expected to be substantially completed by the spring of 2023.
The main project, a solar power lease-purchase agreement, would involve installing solar panels on school building roofs; seven likely locations for panels are Bradford, Buzz Aldrin, Glenfield, the high school, the George Inness Annex, Northeast and the field house at Woodman Field.
Other projects include: lighting upgrades; long-term ventilation improvements; building envelope improvements; transformer upgrades and roof resealing.
The improvement program has already gotten the necessary approvals from state agencies, including the Board of Public Utilities, so the last step was for the BOE to officially give the project permission to go ahead.
The goal is to have all of the improvements pay for themselves over the next few years.
HOW IT WORKS
Parette Somjen did an audit of the school buildings in 2016, looking for areas that could be targeted for energy savings projects. Honeywell was named as a project partner in 2019 and did its own audit of the schools that year.
New Jersey has allowed school districts to pursue energy savings programs since 2012. All of the projects combined would cost an estimated $11 million, and the goal was to pick projects that would eventually pay for themselves, and therefore cut down on the risk of having to use additional taxpayer money, architect Greg Somjen said.
Through the program, a district is permitted to take on debt for a project based on how much energy savings the project would earn, and then use those savings to pay off the debt in installments over the next 15 years.
Somjen gave a hypothetical example of $10 that goes toward energy costs. With the energy savings projects, the district would still spend that same $10 but of that amount, $6 would go to energy costs but $4 would be used on energy-saving projects and maintenance costs, with the goal that those projects would keep energy costs down in the long run.
The project planned for Montclair has six components. Of those, at least five will be done at all of the school-owned buildings: lighting upgrades; long-term ventilation improvements; building envelope improvements; transformer upgrades; and roof resealing. The solar energy lease-purchase project has been presented as a possibility for at least seven locations.
The lighting upgrade is especially likely to recoup its investment, Somjen said. A standard lightbulb uses 28 to 32 watts, but an LED bulb would use 10. “Just do the math, and the savings are there,” he said.
The ventilation component would make sure that air conditioning and ventilation could be controlled from the classroom. Classroom comfort and ventilation is of special concern amid COVID-19.
“Eventually, schools will be back in session full time,” Joe Coscia of Honeywell said. “Everyone’s got a big concern about ventilation, ventilation control and mechanical ventilation.”
Montclair is in the process of upgrading air filters and air conditioning systems ahead of the expected Nov. 1 reopening. But school officials said that work is short-term, separate from the Energy Savings Improvement Program, while the ventilation overhauls within the program are more long-term.
The building envelope portion will seal off the buildings from drafts.
The roofs at the schools need to be sealed and reinforced before solar panels can be installed.
Montclair’s school buildings could host solar panels, which would harvest solar energy to sell, with at least eight to 10 solar energy vendors so far voicing an interest in working with the district, Coscia said.
Under a lease-purchase project, energy vendors would pay Montclair for solar energy generated by panels on school property.
Montclair could also become eligible for certain energy rebates through the solar program. If the district embarked on the 15-year lease agreement, together with doing the other five types of energy upgrades, Coscia said, it would result in $12 million in energy savings, $1 million in rebates and approximately $850,000 in additional cash flow for the district over the next decade.
Coscia said that the Montclair schools could be a leader in local solar lease-purchases. “It means you’re going to have the opportunity to show you’re good environmental stewards,” he said.
On the environmental aspect, Coscia said, the district would save 2,052,491 kilowatt hours and 291,481 therms (gas), and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2,627 metric tons annually. That would be the equivalent of taking 544 motor vehicles off the road and saving or planting 2,488 acres of trees.
One project that will have to be done is upgrading what Coscia called “antiquated” electrical systems at Montclair High School and Hillside. Not only is it a safety issue, he said, but the electrical systems have to be upgraded to support the lighting upgrades and the overhaul of the air conditioning systems.
The electrical repairs themselves aren’t part of the improvement plan, Coscia said, but are a separate capital project. It would cost an estimated $2 million to replace the systems, but the district would eventually recoup that amount in energy savings.
Some families have donated air conditioners to classrooms in the summer months to help make the rooms more comfortable. But, Somjen said, there is the risk of plugging donated air conditioners into the school’s electrical supply and not getting enough electricity to run them.