Dixon Public Schools mulling offer to install solar panels; could save it nearly $2M over 25 years

Board of education looking to discuss issue during October meeting, vote expected on Nov. 16

A view of the solar panels at Reagan Middle School in Dixon. An energy consortium is proposing to install solar arrays at all the district schools in exchange for joining its power purchasing partnership.

DIXON — Dixon Public Schools officials are mulling a proposal from an energy consortium to install solar panels on school rooftops and campus grounds — a move that could save the district nearly $2 million, according to an estimate.

The scale of construction is so large the district “would never be able to pay for a system like this” on its own, the district’s finance director told the board. The consortium is offering to install the technology at no cost to the district.

A 25-year contract with the consortium would produce adjusted savings — the consortium’s most conservative estimate — of $1,959,845 in energy costs over that period. The adjustment is for inflation and anticipated increases in utility company distribution rates

Actual savings could be more, but presenter Haj Young said: “We want to under-promise and over-deliver.”

The Dixon Public Schools Board of Education will devote its Oct. 19 meeting to discussing all the aspects of joining the consortium, including the installation of fixed solar panels, the visual aesthetics of rooftop construction, and the process by which the district would both produce and purchase electricity through the partnership. The proposal could come for a vote before the board at its Nov. 16 meeting.

Young is a member of the Future Green Energy Consortium, a not-for-profit that brings renewable energy solutions to schools on behalf of a Chicago-based energy company Econergy. The consortium — because it concentrates on school energy solutions — has the endorsement of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, the Illinois Association of School Boards and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.

Board member Melissa Gates queried the presenter on a number of pitfalls and complications involved with solar projects. After hearing his answers, she said: “I’m all in. It’s a great idea.”

Young’s presentation was 45 minutes long and was part of a two-hour long working session on identifying and planning for physical improvements across the district.

There was little mention of the merits of solar power as clean power. Rather, the session conducted by finance director Marc Campbell and facilities director Kevin Schultz focused almost entirely on the financial ramifications to the district.

Schultz and Campbell set aside the power-produced capability of the arrays themselves, and highlighted the role the consortium plays in negotiating with utility companies on their power purchase agreements, or PPAs.

This is the existing solar array at Reagan Middle School in Dixon. An energy consortium is proposing to install solar arrays at all the schools in exchange for becoming a partner in its power purchasing agreements.

Future Green negotiates on behalf of the entire consortium of schools, which gives it more bargaining power than any single school has on its own, Campbell said.

The district had been vetting solar providers for a while. Campbell said Future Green was attractive because it works with schools. Future Green is working with 110 school districts in a variety of ways. It has 10 solar projects under construction, three are completed and three more will be finished by the end of 2022. About 40 are like Dixon, considering proposals.

Other companies promised such pie-in-sky savings figures “we couldn’t believe they were true,” Campbell said. “In our opinion we thought they were somewhat sensationalized.”

Moreover, Schultz said, this will lessen the bite rising utility costs have been taking from the Operations and Maintenance fund in the school budget. O&M is funded entirely by the property tax levy.

As Schultz laid it out, property values are increasing at a rate of 2% to 3% a year. Utility costs are rising at a much faster rate, and may even triple or double in the next three years. Without this deal, more and more of O&M will go to utility costs, leaving a smaller amount to fix and repair existing facilities. The consortium — depending on the size of each individual array — is offering a locked rate, most in the vicinity of 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

“This is not a windfall of money,” Schultz said. “But it is a guaranteed savings over time. No way we can negotiate a contract for under 6 cents a kilowatt. Over time, a system like this really saves us money.”

On behalf of Future Green, Young provided the following projections, based on computer modeling.

— A 598 kilowatt system at Dixon High School would produce 803,957 kwh and have first-year savings of $16,300.

— A 365 kilowatt system at Reagan Middle School would produce 539,809 kwh and have first-year savings of $19,300.

— A 360 kilowatt system at Jefferson Elementary would produce 484,267 kwh and have first-year savings of $5,100.

— A 214 kilowatt system at Washington Elementary would produce 293,391 kwh and have first-year savings of $7,600.

— A 99.9 kilowatt system at the administrative building would make 136,028 kwh and have first-year savings of $3,200.

Any of these figures would be adjusted, however, once engineers get on sit and make visual inspections to determine the exact size of the arrays. The projections also anticipate degradation of the system over time.

Under the agreement, the arrays would be insured against damage and Econergy would be responsible for adjustments, repairs and maintenance. The district would incur costs only if it wished to upgrade the arrays with machinery so they tilted on a timer to follow the sun across the sky or a newer grade of panels.

Schultz said that with the exception of Reagan, which plans for an array on the ground, the other sites all have newer roofs that accommodate the weight load of the proposed array.

The discussion turned to how the district planned to publicize the proposal and gain public input. Brandon Rogers anticipated that people living by Reagan are certain to ask: “Will it affect me?” Gates suggested fencing might be used at Reagan to mask the arrays.

Schultz pointed out that Reagan has had a solar array for about 15 years whose panels produce about a third of the energy the Future Green panels are capable of generating.

A view of the crenelated tower and profile of the Dixon High School rooftop from street level.
A view of the Dixon High School roof from the heights to the west of the school.

Superintendent Margo Empen said the aesthetics at the high school matter and it was an initial consideration.

“I’ll be honest, we worked really hard on our high school, we know what a showpiece it is for the community,” she said. “I remember asking right away: It better not be an eyesore?”

Schultz said if you go to the third floor of the high school, you’ll see them. People who have houses on the heights overlooking the high school might see them. From the ground, however, it is unlikely to change the school’s visual profile; entire panels will not be visible.

“Most of the people driving by will not see it,” he said.

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Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for Saukvalley.com and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.