Altamont School flips the switch on new solar array as energy saver, learning tool

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

As reported by Dennis Pillion on AL.com on March 8, 2017:

The Altamont School in Birmingham flipped the switch Wednesday on a new, 14.7 kilowatt solar power system that it expects will provide about 20 percent of the school’s daytime electricity, according to installer Sam Yates of Eagle Solar and Light.

The system, located on a south-facing hill overlooking the school’s soccer fields, has a 25 year warranty, will also include a learning kiosk in the school to show the real-time performance of the system and the school’s overall energy use, providing an educational component to the system.

“The new solar array will not only help us reduce our monthly consumption of power, it will also provide outstanding educational opportunities for our students,” Sarah Whiteside, Head of School, said in a news release. “Altamont’s global initiative theme for this academic year is ‘Energy Resources and Climate Change.’

“The solar array is one more way we can express that theme and incorporate environmental stewardship into the culture, and practices, of our school.”

Based on 30-year average data from the National Renewable Energy Lab, Yates said the system should generate about 22,000 kilowatt-hours each year. The rest will still be provided by Alabama Power. If the panels over-produce, generating more electricity than the school is using, that energy will be fed back to the grid.

However, the goal is for the panels not to overproduce. Unlike utilities in some other states, Alabama Power only pays solar customers the utility’s avoided costs for excess power fed back onto the grid. Yates said that’s about 25 percent of the retail cost of electricity.

“For that reason, we design systems smaller than necessary so they don’t generate excess power under normal conditions,” Yates said. “But if the school shuts down for a week during the summer and they don’t run the air conditioner, then it would sell that power back to the grid.”

Yates said he believes Altamont is the first secondary school in the Birmingham area to install a solar array.

The system includes an inverter that will provide three-phase, 208-volt alternating current, and is expected to save the school significant amounts of money over the lifetime of the system.

“We’ve actually wanted to do this for a long time,” said Amber McKowen, Altamont’s Director of Finance. “Prior to now, we’ve never found a way to install the solar panels that would provide the power to our school and didn’t cost more than it would save on the power bill.

“Every dollar we save on heating and cooling this building is a dollar we can spend on the children and that’s the ultimate goal.”

Eagle Solar and Light is a Birmingham-based company that has completed solar installations in Alabama, North Carolina and Colorado, including projects for the Alabama Environmental Council, Red Mountain Park, and the city of Mountain Brook.