Schools Pay Zero Down for Large-Scale Solar Projects

November 21st, 2012 by Fred Greenhalgh

Thomas College - Waterville, Maine Solar Power
The completed 700 panels at Thomas College – the largest solar array in Maine!

Thomas College and Colby-Sawyer College are excited about the large solar arrays being installed by ReVision Energy at zero upfront cost. The systems are being financed through power purchase agreements (PPA’s), which enable schools and non-profits to acquire solar energy systems at a fraction of the normal cost. In Waterville, Maine Thomas College is getting 700 panels installed and in New London, NH, Colby-Sawyer is getting 522 panels. Both projects are among the largest solar installations in northern New England.

Quoted in the Morning Sentinel (Waterville, ME), ReVision Energy co-founder Bill Behrens pointed towards the long-term vision inherent in the move to go solar:

Bill Behrens, co-founder of ReVision … says there’s no reason why Maine should buy electricity from outside its borders, because the state has plenty of sunshine and it is underutilized. It takes people with vision, such as educators and college officials, to work on a project that will be sustainable into the future, according to Behrens.

“You can’t do this if you are just thinking about the next six months or a year,” he said. “You have to have that vision that your institution is going to be here for the long haul.”

The funding process to make these projects come to be has taken years to develop, and has been helped by the dramatically declining costs of photovoltaic panels. Projects of this scale are common in California, Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts, but until now have been uncommon in Maine, where there is no effective SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Credit) market.

How a PPA Works

Nonprofits, schools, and municipalities, which do not pay income taxes, are not eligible for the 30% federal tax credit and bonus depreciation which are available to for-profit entities that purchase solar energy systems.  However, by having a for-profit entity buy the solar array and then sell the power the array produces to the nonprofit (versus having the nonprofit by the array themselves), then the economics of going solar becomes more viable for nonprofits.

A Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) creates a single-purpose private entity whose sole purpose is to purchase and operate the solar array for a period of years.  This private entity finances the up-front cost of the solar array, and is thus eligible for the federal incentives which the nonprofit is not eligible for.  In turn, the nonprofit purchases power from the for-profit entity at a negotiated rate for a period of years – this is the essence of the Power Purchase Agreement structure.  Typically the cost per kWh of power the nonprofit pays in a PPA is slightly under the rate the nonprofit would otherwise pay for utility power.

However, after a period of years (minimally 7) the private entity can then opt to sell the solar array to the nonprofit (who also has provided a host location for the array to be installed over those years).  If the nonprofit is able to buy the system, their savings increase dramatically, as after the purchase cost is recouped (generally within another 7 years) then the nonprofit essentially has ‘free’ power for the amount of solar electricity produced by the system.

Making the Project Happen

And what do you do when you have 700 solar panels? Install them! Project Manager Brian Byrne talks about his approach to Thomas College: “It seems big at first, but when you start breaking it down to a bunch of smaller projects, it’s the same thing that we do every day,” Brian says, “It all goes up one panel at a time!”

At Colby-Sawyer College, New London, NH:

Colby Sawyer College - Solar Power

ReVision Energy solar installer Erik Mitchell lag bolts in rail at Colby Sawyer College in New London. Behind him, installers Nick Bristol and Chris Pamboukes set tripolymer sealant on the roof penetrations. Colby-Sawyer College is installing 127kw of solar electricity generation on four different buildings across their campus.

Riding to the Top in Windham, Maine:

Riding to the Top Solar - Windham, Maine

ReVision Energy installers with “Firefly,” one of the therapeutic riding horses at Riding to the Top (RTT) in Windham, Maine. RTT’s new solar array will provide close to 100% of the electricity needs of their facility.


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