Solar power pays off for school

By Dustin Barnes/The Clarion Ledger

Northwest Rankin Middle School is not only reducing energy costs with solar power, it’s also selling some of the power it generates.

The school has used an array of 16 solar panels on three of its portable classrooms since 2009 through a partnership with Central Electric Power Association.

What power the school doesn’t use, it can sell portions back to the association through a partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

From March to April, for instance, the buildings ran an energy bill of $111.39, said Rusty Ponder, the district’s energy management coordinator. With solar-generated power, a $79.11 credit was issued to the school’s bill, leaving a balance of less than $30.

Schools, farms and utilities throughout Mississippi are moving to solar energy to save money and support business.

But “to make (solar power) worthwhile, we need more state incentives,” Ponder said.

A Mississippi resident looking at installing solar panels may pay $30,000, but a resident in Louisiana, where state-backed solar power tax credits and initiatives are administered, may pay half that, Ponder said.

Northwest Rankin Middle School was lucky because the buildings on the school’s campus were selected as a trial run for the solar program through Central Electric, Ponder said.

Will and Carolyn Hegman, owners of Carthage-based company Mississippi Solar, donated the panels to the school as a way to encourage younger generations to learn how solar energy works and can benefit consumers, Will Hegman said.

The Hegmans’ business installs the panels across the state. In addition to working with solar energy, Will Hegman said they use the panels at home.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been averaging a $70 annual credit on our utility bill,” he said.

In the Hegmans’ case, their panels generate more than enough to pay their bill and get money back each year.

Other than not having to pay a monthly utility bill, Will Hegman said he has another building with solar panels that generated a $240 credit last year.

With the buildings at Northwest not using power on holidays, weekends or over summer vacation, Ponder said the panels generate a lot of extra power that is credited to the school’s bill. It’s not unusual to start a school year and not have to pay a dime on the buildings’ power usage until January or February, thanks to the mounting credits.

The buildings have a separate power meter and go on a separate bill, Ponder said. This allows the school and power company to gauge the power generated by the solar panels and used by the portable buildings.

“It’s a good indicator of how (the panels) work with a classroom,” Ponder said.

Part of the school’s involvement includes sending teachers to Colorado for a solar energy workshop, said Jennifer Martin, a teacher for gifted and enriched courses.

Education of faculty and students is a cornerstone of the school’s energy program, she said.

“Each year we have a solar fair where gifted students teach other students about using solar power,” Martin said.

Not only does the fair educate nearly 500 students each year about the benefits of solar energy, but also students gain an idea of how much energy each person uses each day and ways to cut back, Martin said.

Ponder said the solar panels are capable of working for more than 30 years, requiring little to no maintenance.

Private and federal programs can alleviate some of the financial burden on the up-front costs.

Sarah Harvill and Genette Hunt used a federal grant to install a solar-powered water pump at their Sage Farms near Meadville in Franklin County. It replaces the costly and unreliable gas generator they’ve used the last few years to keep a water pump going at their farm’s well.

Using a 5 0/50 match grant known as the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative Grant, the farmers purchased a solar pump for $2,526.

Harvill said if it hadn’t been for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “we would not have the facility we have now.”

“We’re both retired and on Social Security, which doesn’t go far,” Harvill said.

The solar-powered water pump “saved us quite a bit of money putting it in,” she said. “The price of gasoline every day alone was high, and then maintenance costs, too.”

The generator used around seven gallons of gas per week at roughly $910 a year for fuel alone.

“We didn’t have power lines run out there at the well,” Harvill explained, adding they would have to check the pump each day and hand-crank it often to keep it running.

The new pump allows the two farmers to take a little time away from the farm if needed, Harvill said. Over the last three years, the daily necessity to start and monitor the generator meant they couldn’t leave the farm overnight without making prior arrangements with a friend or neighbor to go out and check the water pump.

“Now when the water is low, the solar pump starts pumping automatically,” Harvill said.

In March, Greenwood Utilities of Greenwood installed a solar system comprised of 144 solar panels, said Caleb Dana, vice president at GU.

Those solar panels also were installed by Mississippi Solar, Will Hegman said.

The company was awarded a renewable energy grant from the Mississippi Development Authority, which oversaw the disbursement of the $40.4 million in stimulus money authorized for the state under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Dana said.

“The ARRA grant amount was $166,500, (or) 75 percent of the total estimated project cost,” Dana said. “The power generated would be equivalent to providing the power used by approximately four homes.”

Early data show the program will be on target with predictions over the anticipated 25-year life span of the solar panels, Dana said.

“Annual savings were projected to be approximately $8,000 per year and $200,000 over the 25-year life of the system,” Dana said.

In addition to cost-efficiency, Dana said the Greenwood company’s new solar system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 1,152 tons of carbon dioxide for the life of the system.

The system also will reduce conventional pollution related to toxic air emissions such as lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, he said. The amount of fossil fuels that will be displaced as a result of the project is estimated to be the equivalent of 28 tons of coal, 745 million cubic feet of natural gas or 3,926 gallons of diesel fuel over the 25-year life cycle.