Friday, July 12, 2013

Solar project at East Windham Fire Station moves forward by Elizabeth Richards

Within the next few months the East Windham Fire Station will have a very different look. The town council voted in late June to move forward with a project that will install an array of solar panels on the roof of the station. Curt Bartram, an energy engineer and member of the town’s Energy Advisory Committee said, “Solar energy systems do work in the State of Maine, and this is going to be a good example of how they can benefit towns, and people in the towns.”

Another committee member, Rocky Ackroyd, spoke in favor of the initiative at the June 25 town council meeting. “It is a perfect pilot project for the community to move into the solar world,” he said.

The project is a joint venture between the Town of Windham, and Portland-based ReVision Energy, which approached the committee with the concept of doing a solar project using none of the town’s money, said Bartram. The company purchases the system at its estimated cost of $117,000, and will own and operate the system for the first six years. Windham will purchase the energy generated at a discounted cost of one cent below Windham’s indexed market rate during this six-year time frame, after which the town will have the option to purchase the system for $35,000. The panels will create as much energy as is used by the East Windham Fire Station and the North Windham Fire Station combined, said Ben Smith, assistant town planner in Windham.

“Part of what makes this work for both the town and ReVision is that there are solar energy credits available to the company whereby they sell discounted electricity to the town, and then after six years the town has the option to purchase the solar panel and all the equipment that goes with it at a very discounted rate,” said Smith. While the final contract is still being reviewed, and there is no construction schedule in place yet, Smith said that the panels will be installed before winter.

The goal is to have the town take ownership after the six years, he said. “That’s certainly where the town would see the greatest energy savings dollar wise, but having that six year time period to basically evaluate the system, see how much it’s actually going to generate, will inform that decision when the time comes,” he said. There is a projected savings of approximately $100,000 over 30 years, said Smith, and an estimated $5,500 annual savings once the town owns the system.

While cost savings may be the reason the energy committee could get the proposal on the council agenda, the energy committee was also interested in energy projects that the town can do from a model standpoint, said Smith. “The benefit of generating electricity that’s not fossil fuel based is certainly one of the objectives that the energy committee was looking at,” he said.

“The committee thought it was an excellent way to promote alternative energy sources and to save energy for the town at the same time,” said Bertram. “We’re trying to promote alternative energy, trying to reduce energy consumption within the town, and trying to promote the concept of alternative energies to the folks that live in Windham – that’s really our goal,” he added.

In his comment at the council meeting, Ackroyd said that while there is potential for several years of “free” energy if the town purchases the panels. That’s not what it’s all about. “It’s not the free energy. It’s the modeling of conservation and that the town is willing to do this, which is a great incentive for other people to see the need for us to start looking at alternatives to our traditional fuels that we use for electricity,” he said.

An initial meeting in April left the council with some questions around installation, snow removal, financing and payback that were answered satisfactorily by the time the council voted on the project on June 25, according to Smith. The council voted 6-1 in favor of the project.

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