Solar Canopy Will Power Nauset Regional Middle School

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Orleans news , Nauset Regional Middle School , Eversource , solar , clean energy

The newly-built solar canopy outside Nauset Regional Middle School is expected to go online later this fall. The canopy will provide enough energy to fully power the middle school. RYAN BRAY PHOTO


ORLEANS – In the parking lot between the Nauset school administration building and Nauset Regional Middle School, a large solar canopy stands covering a fleet of school buses. By year's end, the structure will start saving the school district considerably on its energy costs.

After fits and starts, the canopy is expected to go live by Thanksgiving, if not sooner, according to Jim Nowack, assistant director of finance and operations for the Nauset Regional School District.

"That should provide enough kilowatts to power our middle school," he said.

Construction on the expansive canopy is complete, and Nowack said all that remains to be done is connecting the structure's wiring to underground electrical conduits. From there, Eversource will make some upgrades to its nearby electrical substation before the canopy goes live. That process could take one to two months, he said.

The district is no stranger to solar projects. At Nauset Regional High School, there are solar panels on the roof which the district owns that Nowack said are "working very well." The district also has a power purchase agreement with the town of Wellfleet, through which it nets 300 kilowatts of power a year from the town's landfill to help power the high school.

Interested in bringing solar to the middle school, the district submitted a bid for a project through the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, which was accepted in 2019. The district will pay 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour through its power purchase agreement with the collaborative, Nowack said.

"We're paying 19 or 20 cents now, so we're getting a nice discount," he said.

The cooperative owns the canopy, which Nowack said is expected to generate about 550,000 kilowatts of power a year, and is leasing district land over the next 20 years for its operation. After that, the district has the option of assuming ownership of the canopy or paying the project contractor to take it down, he said.

But bringing the project to fruition hasn't been without its challenges. After the bid was accepted, the district was informed that school districts are not allowed to enter into leases as long as 20 years. As a result, the district had to petition the state legislature for permission to enter into the lease with the cooperative. That process took about eight months.

The project was further delayed last summer when the rising cost of steel needed to construct the canopy jumped by 75 percent, Nowack said.

"We just said 'OK, we can't do it for this price. This is what we can do it for.' We banged it around for a while, and decided 'Let's put it off for a year. Maybe the prices will come down.'"

While the cost didn't go down, the district opted to proceed with the project anyway. But the anticipated savings for the district through the canopy's operation are significant. Over the life of the collaborative's lease, Nowack said the district is expected to save about $1 million.
The project also involves the installation of a backup battery system, which will be used as needed to lower the district's energy use during periods of high demand.

"First thing in the morning when everything gets turned on and we suck up a lot of energy, the utilities usually charge a little more at those times," he said. "So we'll use our batteries. We can save on those demand costs too, which is big."

The canopy will also benefit the Cape Cod Collaborative, which houses its fleet of school buses on the site. The covering will save collaborative staff time and money on bus maintenance, especially when it comes to snow removal during inclement weather.

"We expect to get at least another two years out of these buses by keeping them there," Nowack said.

Looking ahead, the district is leaving the door open for other solar initiatives. While there currently is not a solar component to the ongoing high school reconstruction project, Nowack said infrastructure will be installed in the school's student and staff parking lots to allow for the possibility of future projects. Apart from solar, Nowack said there are plans for electric vehicle charging stations at the high school.

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