State incentive programs have been driving solar installation across the country as part of a mission to expand renewable-energy use across facilities including city, county and school district sites. Photovoltaic systems installed in these locations often provide the majority of energy needed to power the hosting building, while facility owners pay no cost for the installation.
This year, much of this technology installation is being provided by the Clean Energy Design Group (CEDG) in Springfield, Ill. Pyramid Electrical Contractors Inc., Fairview Heights, Ill., has helped by connecting networks such as a three-school system in the Jersey Community Unit School District No. 100 (CUSD 100). Since early this year, three CUSD 100 schools—an elementary, middle and high school in Jerseyville, Ill.—are powered by the sun. With a total of 5,500 PV panels, the schools are capturing enough energy to power between 40%–85% of their needs, which means a significant reduction in the schools’ electricity bills, said Alan Churchman, director of transportation and facilities for the school district.
Much of Illinois’ solar growth comes as a result of a renewable-energy standard that requires the state’s businesses and public sites to generate at least 25% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025. The Jersey CUSD 100 schools, and other projects CEDG has won in the past year, were incentivized through the Illinois Power Agency (IPA,) a nonprofit, regulation industry for energy use said James Holtzman, a managing partner with CEDG.
The IPA provides renewable energy credits on a first-come, first-served basis, and negotiation over the latest set of contracts was completed at the end of 2020. The power purchase agreement arrangement makes the end-user the host of the installation, with the immediate gain once the system is commissioned with a portion of the energy savings. CEDG receives the incentives and operates and maintains the systems for 20 years, with potential for five-year extensions.
Along with the Jersey CUSD 100 schools, CEDG secured 35 different sites as part of the state’s recent contract, and most of those sites are schools. However, there are also municipalities building solar-power units to generate more power for city buildings.
CEDG and Pyramid Electrical have experience building photovoltaic systems onto and around schools, although each site poses unique challenges, employees from both companies said. At school facilities, bringing a new source of power into an existing building often includes upgrading the facilities’ electrical systems to accommodate.
“Sometimes old equipment, such as transformers or panel boxes, may require upgrades,” Holtzman said.
Jerseyville schools proved to be a project that could showcase what solar power could offer without significant upgrades.
The district entered the three schools into a solar-power purchase agreement with CEDG in late 2020. Within months, the system was generating power from the rooftops, with few efforts on the part of school staff. As part of the contract, the school district purchases the electricity derived from their rooftop-PV-array system directly from CEDG at a reduced rate. The power savings for the schools began when the solar-power system went live.
The three schools were selected to host the panels because of the relatively long life still ahead for each of their rooftops. In fact, the buildings’ roofs were all relatively new, with the oldest of the three still having five years left on its warranty. The solar-power-system installation would not affect the life span or insurance rates for the roof, so the school saw more benefits than any challenges, Churchman said.
CEDG chose Pyramid Electrical for the electrical construction because the company has significant solar experience.
“We work with local contractors [for each project], we try to keep it as local as possible,” Holtzman said.
Pyramid Electrical specializes in photovoltaic installation, and the company has been installing solar panels at schools, residences and commercial buildings for more than a decade. Illinois is offering refunds to residential and commercial customers installing panels and has supported those efforts for the past decade. Missouri also enacted a comparative alternative-energy incentive program, and Pyramid serves many of the installations there.
The Jerseyville schools project began in January 2020, and about six of Pyramid’s electricians reported to the site each day. Their task was to build connections for all panels at the three sites over six months.
“It was a collaborative effort,” Holtzman said, which included the school administrators and CEDG and Pyramid project leads.
At each site, Pyramid Electrical installed all AC and DC wire and insulators to draw power from the panels, said David Lange, Pyramid’s project manager. The EC ran the bank of conduits from the panel arrays, over the roof and down to distribution panels, which then back-feed into the school’s electrical switchgear.
“We did all the AC panels, DC wiring, inverters and DC strings,” Lange said.
Although the number of panels capturing the sun’s power at each school is in the thousands, they don’t consume the entire roof space on any of the buildings. Jerseyville West Elementary supports 684 panels that provide 213.84 kilowatts (kW) of power. Jersey Community Middle School features twice as many: 1,548 panels to generate 510.84 kW of power. Jersey Community High School provided the greatest amount of roof space and is accommodating 3,350 panels for 1104.84 kW of power.
Mounting panels on the flat roofs at all three sites was a relatively straightforward process, Holtzman noted. There are no penetrations to the roof structures required, so CEDG employed wind-loaded, concrete ballast blocks to secure the racking that was used for the hail-resistant panels. A typical solar project’s life span is 30 years, and then the light-absorbing, nonreflective solar panels are often recycled.
The high school required the greatest flexibility from installers because the building’s roof surfaces are disjointed. The building has undergone multiple additions as its student body grew. CEDG configured the panel array to accommodate the varied rooftop and to work around mechanical equipment, which was possible without making significant changes to the system.
“Rarely do we get the perfect install, because each one has unique challenges,” Holtzman said.
The Jerseyville schools didn’t need to make significant upgrades to their existing electrical infrastructure and carefully scheduled the rollout with Pyramid and CEDG to ensure the work did not disrupt classes or other programs. Most of the coordination was needed on the weekends, Churchman said, to work around building access for sports events. Churchman recalled there were typically 15 to 20 installers on the roof during the construction process, which included CEDG and Pyramid Electrical.
“Everything went according to plan, and Jerseyville is managed very well,” Holtzman said.
All three installations were completed on schedule and smoothly, Churchman agreed, with one school completed at a time. The largest (high school) project was finished last.
Churchman noted that the system, now live, is invisible from the ground, and much of the panel-installation work had no impact on classes. Since the system was installed, CEDG estimates it will save the school district $90,000 per year. The high school alone could save up to $1 million in energy costs over the next 20 years.
“They’re producing energy the minute the sun comes up each morning,” Holtzman said.
For the schools, that means as energy consumption or costs increase, the savings will too.
“This a huge hedge against inflation for these schools. It’s not only a win-win for energy savings, but it also allows for more rigorous capital planning,” Holtzman said.