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Companies bring solar to area schools

Nixa and Sarcoxie districts take two different routes to sun power

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The solar array installed by Sun Solar LLC at the John Thomas School of Discovery in Nixa may be modestly sized, but students and staff at the STEM school were seeing light bulbs.

“It’s a wonderful learning opportunity,” said Joe Shaughnessy, a fifth-grade teacher. “There are so many different avenues we can take.”

An app allows students to track the energy produced by the panels positioned over an entranceway, and Shaughnessy envisions math lessons involving graphing and percentages, science lessons about energy, history lessons about the evolution of energy sources in the United States, and even writing applications in which students can argue the benefits of different power sources.

“We have so many of those learning opportunities,” Shaughnessy said. “This is real-world. It’s happening all around us.”

Sun Solar just finished installation of a dozen 405-watt panels. The system generates 7,247 kilowatt hours of energy to offset the school’s current usage while helping lower utility expenses, according to Tyrone Galgano, an energy consultant with Sun Solar. He noted a school the size of the elementary would require a 200 kWh system to offset its total energy cost, and the new array provides just 4.86 kWh.

“It’s more geared toward the education part of it,” he said.

Nixa’s array was funded by two donors – $10,000 apiece from Caleb Arthur, Sun Solar’s CEO, and Charlie O’Reilly, former president and CEO of O’Reilly Automotive Inc., Galgano said.

About 50 miles west in Sarcoxie, solar provider Solera Energy LLC has embarked on a much larger project with 2,025 panels – reportedly the largest solar installation to date for a Missouri school, according to Solera. Work is expected to be completed this year, said Will Cox, president of Solera.

The Sarcoxie project is estimated at $2 million-$4 million, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. The estimated savings to the district is $130,000 per year.

Sarcoxie Superintendent Phil Lewis expressed enthusiasm for the project in a December news release.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to improve the district, and Solera was a good answer to our needs,” Lewis said.

While the Nixa project relies on the generosity of individual donors, the larger Sarcoxie project uses a funding mechanism called a solar service agreement.

Cox said an SSA is a third-party funding model for large solar projects. Through it, an investor pays for the construction of the project that will benefit the nonprofit organization. That investor provides power at a flat rate that is lower than the local utility. Cox said ownership of the solar panels will transfer to the Sarcoxie district after 25 years.

The Sarcoxie project is funded through an SSA with Gardner Capital Specialty Group that allows the district to buy energy from its array but not incur capital expenditure or maintenance costs.

Solera was founded by Cox and Mark Gardner, owner of Gardner Capital.

Paying for solar can be tricky for nonprofit entities like schools, Cox said. The nonprofits are unable to benefit from depreciation or tax credits that normally help to fund solar installation.

“They’ve kind of been an underserved sector in renewable energy for the simple fact that it doesn’t make sense for them to finance it,” Cox said.

An SSA solves that problem, Cox said.

“We can give them a rate that is less than they’re currently paying the electric company without any risk on their part,” Cox said. “It doesn’t show up on their balance sheet; they don’t have to take out loans. We’re essentially setting them up to pay less than they are right now, and after 25 years of time, they own it.”

Cox said the commercial sector is able to take advantage of a 26% tax rate credit, as well as a depreciation credit. In its Sarcoxie investment, Gardner Capital can earn all state and federal solar tax credits from the project while having a predictable cash flow through the district’s electricity payments.

Josh Johnmeyer, director of commercial and industrial development for Solera, said SSAs give schools and other nonprofits an alternative energy option.

“It just allows them access to the solar world,” he said. “There’s no capital expenditure; there’s no bond issues, no tax issues, no debt associated with it. They don’t have to maintain it.”

About 80% of schools that have converted to solar energy have used the SSA method, which is new to Missouri schools, Johnmeyer said.

“We’ve seen a dramatic – something like 131% – increase in the amount of schools that have gone solar in the last five years,” he said.

Solera is in talks with five school districts about solar conversions, according to Johnmeyer.

Renewable energy is accelerating worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency, which in December reported solar capacity additions were on track to increase by 17% worldwide in 2021.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports solar generation made up 3% of U.S. electricity in 2020, but it projects solar will provide a fifth of U.S. electrical sources by 2050.

In Nixa, students expressed their appreciation for the solar array that was gifted to the school. During a recent visit by SBJ, three of them gathered around a phone to view real-time data about their school’s solar power usage.

Sixth-grader Dash Crawford shared a factoid: Solar energy used at his school can offset 3 tons of carbon dioxide every year, he said.

“I think it will really help our school because of all the projects going on around here,” he said, referring to the science experiments happening in every classroom. “It will really cut down on the cost of electricity to pay for all the stuff we do around here.”

Tatum Koffarnus, a fifth-grader, had some trivia to share, too: The school’s solar array is the equivalent of planting 120 trees per year.

“It’s going to help the environment, and I’m proud that my school’s part of that,” she said.

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