The Board of Education has begun the process of reaching out to potential investors to fund placing solar panels on school buildings.
BOE member Rich Mattessich, the board's lead member on solar energy issues, announced at last week's board meeting that the summer study process on solar energy led to positive results for the board in terms of energy and financial savings, but the next step is working with vendors and funding a potential solar project.
Mattessich said the current study shows that the school system will not be able to receive all of its energy from solar panels but would see savings. The school system has been exploring various energy saving programs in recent years, which have been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Mattessich said he and other BOE energy and business officials have been in discussions with First Light Energy regarding the solar project and obtaining estimates for the cost of installing panels. He said the BOE is not committed to using First Light as a solar provider permanently and has been using the information obtained to plan the next steps.
"We are talking more specifically about what the next steps are," he said. "We are still information gathering mode."
The final cost of the project and the cost of preparing for solar panel installation top the cash strapped school system's discussions on solar energy, according to Mattessich. He said many of the discussions are currently centered on how to obtain funding for such a project and seeking out investors who have assisted non-profit groups on similar projects. The library partnered with a local energy company in financing a small solar panel project which is expected to debut in coming weeks.
Mattessich said the current government solar project sponsored by the Union County Improvement Authority will not be able to work going forward for the BOE. He said the UCIA needs an answer on participating in phase one of the project in the next few weeks and the BOE will not be able to participate in such a short time frame due to the condition of school roofs. He said in order to install the solar panels, the UCIA is asking for the roofs to be in good condition and the current condition of the roofs - while workable for everyday use - will not support solar panels long term. He said repairing the roofs with the solar panels on them would be costly.
"Unfortunately the timing to be a part of phase one is a little agressive for us," Mattessich said.
Mattessich said the BOE is interested in working with the UCIA if the county financing agency seeks to host a second phase of the solar project at a time that works with the condition of the roofs. The UCIA is seeking to purchase solar panels in a cooperative for local governments and school districts countywide, replacing a proposed local government solar consortium proposed last year by Garwood officials.
Mattessich said that while solar panels can also be placed in parking lots, he said the idea will need further study by his committee before it can be implemented in Westfield. He noted that the project would eliminate the concerns about roof conditions but also reduce the amount of parking spaces available, causing other concerns.
BOE President Julia Walker said the public can expect more discussions on new cost savings programs going forward. The BOE has been grappling with budget shortfalls since March when Gov. Chris Christie slashed state education aid to Westfield by $4.22 million or 90.4-percent. Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan announced during an April school budget forum that the schools system would be exploring a move towards solar energy.
"This is the sort of thing that Westfield is going to habve to start pursuing, different ways of funding savings," Walker said. "The roofs work just not for solar panels," she said.