Media / Press Releases


By Jessica Beym

WASHINGTON TWP. Now may not be the right time to try to "go green" in Washington Township's schools. That seemed to be the message a number of residents tried to convey at the Washington Township Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, where the board gathered to hear the public's input on possibly putting the solar panel project at the high school back out to a public vote in the spring.

The crowd of about 40 people included residents, some local solar experts and district teachers, who were all either for, against or on the fence about the proposal.

The majority of audience members couldn't see a financial benefit, as a taxpayer, to support the $6.2 million project.

"For the people in this community, the timing's not right," said Connie Baker.

The project, which was voted down by taxpayers in March, calls for a 700-kilowatt solar panel system to be installed on the high school roof at a total cost of $6.2 million.

However, the district has qualified for a $1.5 million rebate from the state Board of Public Utilities - set to expire in April if it's not used - and has a commitment from the state Department of Education to pay about 45 percent of the remaining debt.

Spiezle Architecture Group presented figures Tuesday night showing the annual cost to the township's taxpayers would be about $255,000 after those two funding mechanisms. However, through money saved by reducing the utilities bill, and money earned by selling the solar energy credits on the open market, the district would end up with a net profit of about $70,000 a year.

"Other than restructuring the debt, what has changed since last year?" asked Terry McCallum.

The $1.5 million grant wasn't available then. Scott Spiezle also said his figures were on the conservative side, and it was possible the system would cost slightly less than what they anticipate.

He also said the value of the Solar Renewable Energy Credit, or SREC, is only likely to go up. It was estimated to be worth about $250 last year, but is now being sold on average for about $525, he said.

Some residents questioned if there would be maintenance costs, but Spiezle said the panels would be covered by warranty. The only cost he could foresee was to replace the inverter after about 10 or 12 years, which would cost about $50,000.

Resident Jerry Keer said he voted against the project last year, and encouraged many of his neighbors to do so as well. He said the district isn't being forthcoming with what it will actually cost or save the taxpayers.

"We stopped it because we couldn't get to the bottom-line numbers," Keer said. "You've got to get to the bottom line." The system would only reduce the district's entire utility bills by about 10 or 15 percent, Spiezle said. At the high school alone, they're expected to be about $1 million this year.

Between the savings in utility bills, and money generated through SREC sales, the district can make or save about $325,000 a year. And since the project itself would cost about $255,000 a year, there would be a net profit, Spiezle explained.

Others voiced concerns that the state wouldn't keep its commitment, and the taxpayer would be left to make up the difference.

"The only benefit I can see right now is we're doing our part to be green," said Paul Morino. "We're not talking a lot of money, but we're not talking a lot of benefit either."

Some suggested that with an increased interest in renewable energy on the federal level, more options could become available in the future, or the price of the solar panels could decrease.

"The timing is tough right now," said Councilman-elect Ray MacDowell. "Everybody's broke. These people are panicking. People are concerned, is the technology going to be better next year for less money?"

Still, the school officials said if they don't act now, the $1.5 million grant will be gone.

"If that grant goes away, the money will be dispersed to other school districts in the state," said Superintendent Cheryl Simone.

Other options were also discussed, such as having a power company install the solar system on the high school roof through a lease-purchase agreement. Some audience members said this could be done at no cost to the taxpayers, since the company, through a power purchase agreement (PPA), would make its profit by selling the SRECs.

However, Steve Masapollo, of SolarWorks NJ, located in Washington Township, discredited the idea, saying, "They take all the goodies. You won't make a dime."

"We're going to lose a major opportunity to do something good and profitable for Washington Township," Masapollo said.

Simone said since voters would have to approve spending money, she understands it could be a tough sell.

As other expenses in the district are likely to still increase, it's unlikely residents will see their tax bills go down. They just won't go up as much, she said.

Board President Eileen Abbott said the board will likely discuss the issue again at its work session next Monday. They encouraged the crowd to go out and get more feedback from the public.

"I feel a hesitance from some people, which I can understand," Abbott said. "No one on this board wants to spend money on a referendum if we think it's going to go down. There has to be a dialogue."

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