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Schools Go Solar: Sun Lights Path from High School to JobsLock Icon

7 min read

Johnson Controls of Little Rock and Greenbrier schools are on the cusp of a $13 million project to give the district Arkansas’ largest public entity-owned solar plant, new energy efficiency systems and “the cherry on top,” a high school pipeline to solar industry jobs.

The project, pending board approval June 1, will let the 3,500-student school system “perform $13 million worth of deferred maintenance and capital facility improvements in a budget neutral model,” said Alex F. Ray, Johnson Controls’ director of business development for performance infrastructure. His division of the Irish multinational company focuses on performance contracting, solar and public sector infrastructure work.

The district north of Conway will get at least a 13-1 return on investment in energy efficiency systems including LED lighting and 105 new HVAC and air quality units at 12 different campus buildings. The deal includes three separate solar arrays totaling just over 3 megawatts of capacity, the largest among a growing number of K-12 school-owned systems in the state.

“In fact, I believe this will become the largest publicly owned solar installation in the state of Arkansas. That is, owned by a public-sector entity,” Ray said.

“It’s not costing them any money because I’m guaranteeing that the savings from these improvements will pay for themselves.”

Greenbrier’s outlay will be less than a million dollars, and likely covered by federal pandemic relief from the Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which authorizes air quality improvements.

Then there’s what he called “the cherry on top, a first-in-the-state K-12 jobs certificate in solar.” The new job training component will offer credits for STEM programs, but several solar developers said they were excited by the job training aspect because it offers a new skilled resource for a growing solar workforce.

The educational element springs from Johnson Controls’ performance contracts at a number of two-year colleges, including one in Hawaii, Ray said.

Project in Springdale

In another school-solar development, Ozarks Electric Cooperative and the Springdale School District have announced a partnership with Today’s Power Inc. of North Little Rock to put a 2.4-megawatt solar facility near Sonora Middle School with 7 MW of battery storage. Electricity from the project is expected to supply 95% of power needs at three campuses, Sonora Middle School, Sonora Elementary School and the Don Tyson School of Innovation.

“This is a win-win for the Springdale Public Schools,” said Kelly Hayes, deputy superintendent of the 23,000-student system. “This project allows the district to be powered by renewable energy and offers us the opportunity to expose our students to new learning opportunities.”

The educational component was also what sold Greenbrier Superintendent Scott Spainhour on the Johnson Controls-Seal Solar deal. “It was the curriculum piece that convinced me,” he told Arkansas Business by phone on Thursday. “We’re hoping to teach CTE [Career Technical Education] courses on maintaining solar arrays, and we’re going to have a lab outside for kids to work hands-on in solar, and maybe even use them to take care of our equipment.

“But what really sold me was the potential for a certification program for jobs in an industry that’s booming.”

Spainhour said his school board has been involved in the project from the beginning, and he expects members to approve it this week. “This is going to allow us to upgrade much of our infrastructure and it’s going to save a lot of money. I’m particularly excited that solar will provide mostly all of our electricity. The board is excited about it as well.”

Friday Night LEDs

The effort includes six key facility improvement measures, including weatherization of buildings, energy management controls across all district facilities, the HVAC retrofits and new LED lighting for the football field.

Johnson Controls and its solar installation partner, Seal Solar of North Little Rock, are working with the nonprofit Project Lead the Way to write a curriculum and pursue accreditation for the job certificate program by the Arkansas Department of Education.

Arkansas solar companies need technicians, Ray said, and they’re reporting spending a lot of time and effort training new workers.

The solar power element and efficiency savings will be substantial over the 20-year term of the contract, with Johnson Controls guaranteeing the district $14.2 million in utility savings alone.

Ray also projects $1.5 million in savings on operations and maintenance.

“That’s the value proposition in performance contracting as a public sector procurement model,” Ray said.

“The schools are also reducing their carbon footprint, insulating themselves from the increasing cost of electricity and providing their students a competitive advantage in one of the fastest-growing job markets in the country,” Ray said in a telephone interview.

Heather Nelson, president of Seal Solar, described the three arrays and emphasized that the project wouldn’t have been possible without legislation easing public entity investment in solar power and the state’s regulatory acceptance of net metering. That’s the system utilities use to credit the electric bills of customers with solar and other renewable generation plants.

“The three arrays combined will be just over 3 megawatts, and will include both rooftop and ground-mounted systems,” Nelson said. Production is expected to offset at least 97% of the district’s consumption.

Nod to Solar Policy

“The fact is,” Nelson said, “the whole project wouldn’t be possible without offset net meter aggregation. We spent this past legislative session defending that current policy of the Arkansas Public Service Commission.” The commission, which regulates utilities in Arkansas, ruled last year that the state would keep a net metering rate crediting solar customers for the power they put on the grid at a rate similar to retail rates utilities charge residential customers.

“Greenbrier schools are benefiting from that PSC policy,” Nelson said.

Ray, noting that Johnson Controls is the global leader in performance contracting, said the Greenbrier project is the company’s first curriculum project for a kindergarten-through-12th-grade system in North America, “and certainly the first K-12 curriculum that would offer certification in solar operations and management and installation in the state. But it’s totally modeled on a program that we use pretty extensively in our higher education markets. We’ve done this same kind of thing for our community college customers, most recently for one of the University of Hawaii community college campuses.

“The college said, hey, we want to turn this into an associate’s degree curriculum, and it worked out well,” Ray continued. “So we started talking about the concept with Greenbrier.”

Nelson said recent job trends and Seal Solar and its competitors prove that the industry needs more job prospects with operations and maintenance skills. Jobs will be waiting, she said.

Seal, which once focused on the kind of efficiency work still done by Johnson Controls, sold off that division of the company in April 2019. “So by May 1 of that year, we were 100% focused on solar, and we had 13 or 15 employees,” Nelson said. “By January 2020, we were up to 20, but from May of last year to Dec. 31, through the throes of the pandemic, we hired 22 people. As of today, we’re at 48 employees and about to bring on five more. By the end of June, we’ll be at 55 employees. So my data shows that this is needed. The data shows the jobs are there.”

Ray said that Johnson Controls sees Seal Solar as the primary “target employer” for the program. “Seal is the largest dedicated solar installer in the state and certainly the largest operations and maintenance provider for solar PV in the state. We wanted them to help co-author the job-ready certificate curriculum. Ideally, these high school students who want to take a vocational track will be graduating from Greenbrier High School ready to go to work.”

Springdale Savings

In Springdale, the Today’s Power project will benefit the schools and the 79,000 customers served by Ozarks Electric, based in Fayetteville. The project’s battery storage element will reduce wholesale demand costs at the co-op, officials said.

“Strategic placement and utilization of battery storage through this trilateral partnership of Springdale Schools, Today’s Power and Ozarks Electric create an opportunity to save approximately $2.3 million for our members over the next 25 years,” said Mitchell Johnson, president and CEO of Ozarks Electric. The co-op has partnered on other projects with Today’s Power, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. of Little Rock.

Today’s Power has built small utility-scale solar arrays for most of the state’s distribution cooperatives, and has been increasingly installing batteries.

“We are always looking for ways to provide renewable energy solutions in our local communities,” TPI President Michael Henderson said.

The Springdale project is pending PSC approval, Henderson said.

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