Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Olean School Solar Project Rising Again

OLEAN — With no up-front investment, the Olean City School District (OCSD) could see a financial windfall from partnering with a Colorado-based energy company.

But the planning process has moved slowly after Arion Energy’s first presentation to the district — more than a year ago — on the feasibility of installing solar panels on campus roofs. So slowly, in fact, the district was prepared to abandon the plans, said OCSD Building and Grounds Committee chairman Paul Knieser.

The relationship has not died, though, Mr. Knieser said Friday. Sometime before the next committee meeting Jan. 21, he expects Arion Energy to unveil an updated plan.

After that initial presentation, Mr. Knieser said, officials coordinated an 18-month timeframe to put a solar plan in motion. If Arion Energy eventually completes installation on the district’s buildings — reportedly at its own expense — Olean’s schools would benefit from free electricity and selling excess power to National Grid.

“I’m going to guess if nothing happens by May or June we may leave the negotiating table,” Mr. Knieser said. “... We’re committed to the extent that we agreed we would give them information, and they would come up with proposals that would meet our needs and desires. ... I’m just guessing that they’re not going to be able to do that within 18 months.”

That exchange of information at first involved only the district’s building plans.

“(District Superintendent Dr. Colleen Taggerty) was letting them know that just having an engineer look at our building plans wasn’t good enough,” Mr. Knieser said, noting some of the district’s roofs have been or will soon be renovated. “That was the committee’s consensus, too. We’ll just see what their response to that is. I don’t know if they want to incur that expense because they would have to hire their own engineer.”

A big question: Could the roofs handle the weight of a series of large solar panels?

Mr. Knieser admitted he is unsure how much each unit would weigh.

While exact dollar figures aren’t yet available, he added that electricity sales could yield considerable revenue.

“It would be beneficial to the district if we could cut our energy cost and bring in additional revenue,” he said. “Neither one is going to be drastic, but it would save thousands of dollars. How many thousands, we don’t know yet because again we don’t have the details from Arion. There are districts that have done this and have reaped the benefits.”

Dr. Taggerty preferred to comment on Arion after plans solidify. The timetable isn’t rushed, Mr. Knieser maintained.

As for the delay, the chairman believes Arion underestimated the state Education Department’s often-sluggish approval process.

“They need approval from State Ed, but they haven’t started that,” Mr. Knieser said. “I think initially they thought that was going to be a breeze. If you get something through in three to four months, you’re incredibly lucky.”

The solar panels would have a 20-year lifespan. With an agreement in place, Arion and OCSD would split the positive cash flow from selling electricity, Mr. Knieser said.

“That has to be relatively lucrative for them,” he added. “The panels are the main investment (from Arion), and they’re basically maintenance free for 20 years. You put them up for 20 years, check them now and then, and then take them down in 20 years.”

According to its website, Arion Energy focuses 65 percent of its efforts on solar power, 30 percent on wind and five percent on bio-gas. It has contracts and current projects in development in 14 states.

“More people want to establish a means of providing power for their need locally,” Arion’s website states. “The most practical means of doing so is the implementation of commercial solar power.”


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