Solar Wins Voters’ Favor for School Construction Projects

Since 2008, voters have approved three-quarters of the construction projects that include a solar energy component

Solar energy is not only proving good business for New Jersey public schools, it’s proving pretty good politics, too.

Tuesday’s referenda on school construction projects saw voters approve another solar panel installation, this time a $41.5 million roof replacement project involving 21 Woodbridge schools.

The Woodbridge project was by far the biggest of the six projects approved by voters on Tuesday, and represented half of all public money winning the voters’ backing.

Actually, it has been a good run for solar on the rooftops and parking lots of public schools for a few years now. Voters have approved more than three quarters of the construction projects that include solar since 2008.

Overall, the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has cleared nearly 80 school solar projects since 2008, as well as another 25 in private and parochial schools. The BPU has provided purchase credits and more than $12 million in Clean Energy rebates to the projects.

Other big projects include $10.5 million for panel installations at seven Lawrence Township schools, and $9.5 million for solar panels at four schools in Lumberton.

“It’s been very popular for schools, and you certainly see them woven into more extensive projects as well,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

That has been among the biggest challenges for schools during the state’s and nation’s economic crisis, as big projects that include major renovations and new construction have typically fared less well with voters. On Tuesday, a $89.8 million proposal in Fort Lee for major renovations to three schools and property acquisition for construction of a new school was rejected by voters.

“The voters continue to be very reluctant to approve big-ticket items,” Belluscio said yesterday. “It’s been a nagging recession, a deep one, and voters are just not willing to spend, or in this case, borrow.”

Overall, 2010 was not a very good year for school construction projects, with only half of 34 proposals winning voters’ approval in five different elections. Last year, it was better than two thirds of proposals winning at the polls.

That has made the passage of solar projects all the more noticeable, due to a number of factors that separate them from typical school projects. A big one is the potential for long-term savings and even additional revenues, a benefit that solar companies have marketed to schools.

“Any time schools can control energy costs, that has benefit passed through to the taxpayers,” said Fred Zalcman, director of regulatory affairs for SunEdison, a solar development company doing extensive work at schools nationwide.

But Zalcman also pointed out the increasing use of power-purchase agreements, in which the schools generate excess power through their installations and sell it back into the energy grid. It is especially good business during the summer months when schools are closed and the sun is high, he said.

“That can offset the energy consumption in the other months,” he said. “It is like having basically a power plant on the roof of the school.”

There have increasingly been educational benefits as well, as the companies and government agencies have developed classroom curricula to go along with the solar installations.

And that makes good business in the long-run, too, with all the potential marketers in the classrooms.

“In some cases, it’s often the school kids who ask the questions and come home with the information for their parents,” Zalcman said. “It all tends to propagate.”