School rooftop solar projects in Maine are gaining traction and students at Belfast Area High School think their school should get on board.

Belfast Mayor Samantha Paradis introduced BAHS senior Rowan Walsh, junior Harmony Dawson, and Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, at the Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors meeting May 13. Inspired by Mount Desert Island High School's rooftop solar array and Portland rallies for solar projects, the two students proposed that “Belfast should be next.”

Walsh said Sundog Solar of Searsport, contractor for 1,350 panels at MDI High School, estimates that a power purchase agreement with the installation of 1,282 panels atop BAHS would save the district roughly $1 million over 30 years.

Sundog Solar owner Chuck Piper needs the last year’s electric bills to firm up that estimate. At press time June 4, he said he had not received the requested electric bills and said he was unable to definitively state the savings to the district.

The power purchase agreement, or PPA, would be similar to one at MDI High School. All initial costs would borne by Sundog Solar, and the school would decide on purchasing the panels after six years.

"It wouldn't just save us money," Walsh said. "It would positively affect our community. I don't think we should be asking why we should bring solar panels to the high school, it should be when."

Maxmin said she is currently working with Campaign Earth, a "climate justice movement" in Maine, to help defray initial cost of going solar. She helped Portland students raise funds to bring solar to every public school in the city. She said to date, the group has raised $14,725 of their $25,000 goal and she offered BAHS the group's services and resources.

On Saturday, May 4, a few hundred students, parents, educators and environmental activists under the moniker, "SolaRISE Portland," rallied on the steps of Portland City Hall to advocate for solar panels on Portland public schools. Their goal is to run all city buildings on renewable energy by 2040. 

Organizers said funds will be put toward costs associated with the transition to solar such as roof preparation and engineering work, with a goal of being “short-term cost neutral and long-term cost beneficial for Portland.” The initial goal is six area schools.

August completion at MDI

Earlier this month, structural engineers determined the roof of MDI High School is strong enough to support an array of solar panels designed to meet all of the school’s electricity needs. Piper anticipates completing the job by the end of August and said this is the largest project the Searsport-based company has undertaken to date.

Under the power purchase agreement, Sundog Solar will install the array at no initial cost to the school. Once the system is up and running, the high school will pay Sundog 19 cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity it uses. The school currently pays Emera Maine 17 cents per kilowatt hour for a total of about $110,000 a year.

After seven years, the school can buy the solar power system from Sundog for $364,500. From then on, the school would pay nothing for the electricity generated.

Solar in Camden

Camden Hills Regional High School has had solar panels on its roof since 2010 and can attest to the savings. According to Facilities Director Keith Rose, in 2010 the school installed an 8,000-kilowatt system and in 2015, installed a much bigger 159,000-kilowatt system and entered into a 20-year power purchase agreement with ReVision Energy of Liberty.

The school purchases its power from ReVision, currently at around 11 cents per kilowatt hour, and after seven years, has the option to buy the arrays for a discounted price of $170,000. Rose said the original price for the arrays was $450,000.

"It's worked out great," Rose said. "There is no negative."

Between his own efforts and those of a school student-led committee known as "The Windplanners," Rose said the school was able to raise a half-million dollars to complete a 155-foot wind turbine project in 2012.

Erected on the CHRHS campus, the turbine offsets the total electric bill by roughly, $9,000 a year. Between wind and solar systems, the school generates approximately 225,000 watts, providing just over two-thirds of the school's daily energy requirement.

Besides the savings on electricity through wind and solar generation, the Camden school has also saved by converting all lighting to LED.

In Belfast, no decisions have been made about installing solar panels at the high school.