Energy cost-saving options, through the use of solar panels, could be a possibility for the Forest City School District.
The main goal of the solar panel project would be to save general fund costs out of which teachers and staff are hired.
The cost to install the solar panels is estimated at $1.5 million, which would be paid through the district's capital projects fund. This account funded by local option sales tax revenue. The district could also use it's physical plant equipment levy (PPEL) to pay for the project.
The idea was discussed by Forest City School District Superintendent Darwin Lehmann and Sara Meinders, the district’s business manager and school business official, during the board's monthly meeting held on Monday, Nov. 11.
“We are only at the introductory phases and just researching it now,” Meinders said. “Nothing has been decided. We are just asking the board for permission to take the next step, which is basically to hire an analyst to really dig deep into the project and determine if it is economically feasible for our district to proceed with a solar panel project.”
Meinders presented some solar project estimates to the board.
“Currently, we are looking at total cost of $1.5 million for a 1,000 kilowatt array that would be installed over approximately 1.3 acres,” Meinders said. “Approximately every year, we would get back around $80,000 to $90,000 in energy savings.”
Meinders explained how it worked over a 25-year span.
“It starts out around $80,000 and every year the cost of the energy increases so we get back a little more,” she said. "Over 25 years that is estimated at $2.6 million in energy savings.”
Meinders said the district is always looking for ways to save energy costs, because those costs are a significant expense to the general fund account.
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“Iowa School Finance Information Services have done significant research on solar panels,” Meinders said, “and just in the last couple years, solar energy cost savings have become more feasible for schools, as their cost to install has gone down significantly. Solar panels have been found to be more efficient.”
One of the district’s last energy saving project included a wind turbine installed in 1999. It's life expectancy was estimated at 20-25 years, so it is quickly reaching the end of that, Meinders said.
“Our windmill is still producing really well,” she said. “In 2018, we produced 602,000 kilowatts, which is down quite a bit since it was originally at over a million kilowatts per year. So it’s lost about 40 percent of its efficiency.”
The district purchased land adjacent to the high school football field in September with the goal of placing solar panels on 1.3 acres of the 17 acres purchased.
In addition, the land would provide a testing plot for agricultural classes and FFA students.
The ground purchased is currently part of the conservation reserve program (CRP).
“The ground is in CPR until 2021 and so we wouldn’t be able to do anything on that land until 2022,” Meinders said. “We are working on a project that is quite a ways down the road, but we want to make sure we do our research are thorough about our decision before we proceed.”
“School funding in Iowa is not just about going out and raising property taxes, to hire more teachers,” said Meinders. “It’s restricted on a per-pupil basis.
Meinders said as the district's enrollment declines and state aid is limited, the district will begin to struggle financially.
"This is something we can do that will definitely help our school district financially in the future," Meinders said.