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By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair is one step closer to being able to create solar energy at its schools.

The school district has awarded a solar panel contract to two companies, Eznergy, based in Toms River, and Greenskies Renewable Energy, based in North Haven, Conn. 

The Board of Education approved the awarding of the contract to those two companies on Dec. 2. 

The solar panel project is part of the district’s Energy Savings Improvement Program (ESIP), an $11 million series of projects intended to help the schools save money on energy bills in the long run.

The contract is known as a lease-purchase agreement. The district will host the solar panels and infrastructure at its buildings, and buy solar power from the two vendors at a lower rate than it now pays for most of its energy. But the panels will be owned, operated and maintained by Greenskies, which will be responsible for financing construction; Eznergy will be doing the construction.

Three other vendors submitted bids: Overland Park, Kan.-based Biostar Renewables, Montvale-based HESP Solar and Pewaukee, Wis.-based Sunvest Solar. 

Jeff Hintzke, vice president of policy and new markets for Greenskies, said that Eznergy and Greenskies have partnered on other school solar projects. The two companies were jointly awarded a contract with the Newark school district in 2019. 

How it works

Hintzke said Montclair will pay Greenskies for the energy that is produced by the panels, at a rate lower than what the district currently pays for much of its electricity. 

The district’s consultants estimate that Montclair’s schools could save as much as $12 million in energy costs if they did the solar lease-purchase, along with the other ESIP projects. 

Under the contract, Eznergy and Greenskies would sell electricity to the school district at a base price of $0.0049 per kilowatt hour. 

The district budgeted $1,139,205 in utilities for the 2020-2021 budget.

Solar panels typically produce between 250 and 500 watts, with the higher wattages being typical for commercial and institutional solar panels, and the lower wattages typical for residential panels. A 400-watt solar panel that receives five hours of sunlight a day, for example, can produce 2,000 watts a day of solar energy, or two kilowatt hours. If that panel received five hours of direct sunlight a day for a year, it would add up to 730 kilowatt hours a year, which would cost $3.58 under the agreed base price.

“It’s a great deal for the schools; schools are really struggling because of COVID-19,” said Jim Brown, president of Eznergy. 

Brown said that there are financial incentives for solar providers to do projects such as these, since they are eligible for renewable energy credits in New Jersey and investment tax credits for solar projects. 

The next steps are for the two companies to work with the district and its consultant for the overall project, Honeywell, to finalize the engineering details and to obtain the necessary state and local construction and utility permits. If all goes well, Hintzke said, construction could begin this summer. 

Among the locations being considered for the solar panels are Bradford, Buzz Aldrin, Glenfield and Northeast schools, Montclair High School, the George Inness Annex and the field house at Woodman Field. 

The solar panels cannot be installed until another component of the overall plan is completed: sealing the school roofs and reinforcing them to support the weight of the panels, since Montclair is expected to have rooftop panels, primarily. Brown said that Eznergy is working with the district on how the roof reinforcing could be done. 

In the last two years, “New Jersey has been going crazy [on solar projects] in the school sector, if you will,” Hintzke said. He added that Greenskies currently has 14 completed solar projects in operation at K-12 schools in the state, and 57 under contract or under construction. 

The Solar Foundation states that in about 79 percent of schools with solar energy, those projects were financed by a third party, such as a solar developer. “This allows schools and districts, regardless of the size of their budget, to purchase solar energy and receive immediate energy cost savings,” a foundation report said.