By Bob Uphues
Four schools in LaGrange-Brookfield District 102, including Congress Park School in Brookfield, are in line to have their roofs outfitted with solar panels, which will reduce the cost of buying electricity and fulfill the school board's goal to operate more sustainably.
School board members voted unanimously last month to approve a 25-year power purchase agreement with Ferndale, Michigan-based White Pine Renewables, which is paying for the cost of installing and maintaining the solar panels. White Pine renewables will own the systems and will sell power generated by them to the district at a rate 10 percent below what they pay now.
Installing the panels at the school will cost the school district nothing. The cost of the electricity will increase 2 percent a year, but officials estimated the initiative would save the school district $5,000 a year, or $125,000 over the life of the contract.
The power purchase agreement can be renewed for two more five-year terms, or the systems can be removed at the end of the deal.
In addition to Congress Park School, the district will have solar panels installed at Ogden School in LaGrange and Forest Road School and Park Junior high, both in LaGrange Park.
"The district was looking for two things," said District 102 Superintendent Kyle Schumacher in an email. "One was to increase our use of renewable energy and to try to lower costs. The four buildings chosen had enough roof space to make the investment financially viable to investors interested in putting the solar panels on our roofs."
The vote to approve the power purchase agreement capped a roughly two-year effort by the school board and its solar-energy consultant, Midwest Wind and Solar, to determine the best solution for the school district and then identify an investor to fund the project.
The school district could have chosen to pay for installation themselves and lease the panels as part of long-term deal. While that might have resulted in greater savings over the life of the contract, it would have required an up-front investment of almost $2 million to install them.
In addition, the school district would have been responsible for maintaining the panels, and would also have had to pay for the removal and reinstallation of the panels when roofs needed to be replaced.
Park Junior High's roof is scheduled for replacement in 10 to 15 years at an estimated cost of $1.7 million, while the Forest Road school roof is slated for replacement in 15 to 20 years.
Parts of the roofs at Congress Park School and Ogden School were slated for replacement this summer, but those have been pushed off until 2021 to correspond with the installation of the solar panels there next summer.
Eric Graf, director of business development for Midwest Wind and Solar, which is based in Griffith, Indiana, said school districts and municipalities in Illinois have been moving to utility solar energy systems to reduce carbon emissions and save money since the Illinois General Assembly implemented the Future Energy Jobs Act in 2017.
The law, among other things, provides incentives for initiating solar power projects, and entities like school districts, which have large facilities and can sustain planning over long periods of time, are suited to entering into long-term contracts for such projects.
"This project in LaGrange took two years, and it'll be three years when it's built," Graf said. "It's difficult to maintain a conversation over that period of time."
In addition to the cost savings, the schools where solar panels are installed will provide an educational component for students. Graf said Midwest Solar has worked with an educator to produce curriculum materials so students can learn about renewable energy in the classroom.
The schools will also have kiosks that will have pictures of the systems and display information so students and members of the public can see what the systems are producing in real time.
"It'll be present, and that's the point of it, too, that education component," Graf said. "It's important to us that it's out there in front."