Thetford School Seeks Solar Panel Funding

Thetford — In addition to the recycling and composting programs Thetford Elementary School already has established, school officials plan to add solar power to its sustainability portfolio this year, should residents give a proposed photovoltaic array the thumbs up.

Voters will head to the polls Aug. 26 to determine whether to issue a 20-year bond of $345,000 at 3.5 percent interest to pay for solar panels that would provide about 75 percent of the elementary school’s electricity.

“I’m hoping people don’t hear the word ‘bond’ and think, ‘Oh, taxes are going to increase,’ ” said School Board member Erin Sterner. “We’re not borrowing for a roof or something that doesn’t pay back.”

The cost of repaying the bond would be covered through anticipated savings in the school’s electricity costs — anticipated to be $900,000 over the next 25 years, said Sterner. After paying back the bond and costs associated with installing and maintaining the panels, Sterner said, the school would save an additional $350,000 over the next 25 years.

She said the 120-kilowatt array would be constructed out of 470 ground-mounted panels to be located on school-owned land near the school’s septic system. The site, which is set back from road and not within view of any residences, is about a half mile from the school down Route 113 toward Thetford Center. The array would occupy about 1.5 acres and be adjacent to the septic site, said Troy McBride, chief technology officer of Norwich Technologies, the White River Junction-based company that would install the panels.

In addition to borrowing, the project would be financed through a $125,000 grant from the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, administered by the Public Service Department. The school’s was the largest of nine awards made to community groups across the state. Other area awardees included Strafford Community Solar, the town of Sharon and the United Church of Thetford.

The grant makes the school’s $470,000 project profitable throughout the lifetime of the array, which makes it feasible.

The board “wouldn’t be considering it if it was going to add cost,” said School Board Chairwoman Shannon Darrah.

Overall, she said, the project is “very exciting for us.”

School officials estimate energy production from the array would save 9.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent to taking 897 passenger cars off the road over the 40 years of the array’s life. If approved, the array will send its power to the regional grid, and the school district will receive credit for the energy in the form of reduced bills.

In addition to savings, school officials hope the array will add to the school’s educational offerings.

Initially, Sterner said, the board had considered placing the panels on the roof of the school so they would be visible to anyone entering the building, but structural considerations took that idea out of the running.

To incorporate the panels into the school’s educational program, Sterner said, the board plans to place a few solar panels in the school’s playground and provide an informational display including real-time energy generation monitoring in the school lobby. Both will aim to provide students with interactive ways to observe the school’s solar production.

In the longer term, Sterner said, the plan is to create trails from the school to the array and locate educational displays there.

Thetford Elementary School Principal Kevin Petrone said planning for integrating the panels into the curriculum is still in the early stages, but the fifth-grade team has expressed interest.

Petrone described the installation as a “wonderful project” and said “we’re really looking forward to it.”

Bob Walker of the Thetford-based Sustainable Energy Resource Group said the school’s project is one element of the town’s broader efforts toward increasing the amount of solar power generated there. He described a recent effort to encourage solar adoption among the town’s residents that was successful in that it “almost tripled the amount of residential solar power being generated.”

Walker also said that the town’s energy committee is leading an effort to construct a solar array in a closed landfill. The town’s municipal buildings, the Thetford Academy and the elementary school would benefit from that power production, he said.

Should voters approve the bond for the elementary school’s array, Sterner said she anticipates installationto take place late this fall or early winter.

The School Board has scheduled an information session for the project on Tuesday in the Thetford Elementary School cafeteria at 6 p.m.

The paper ballot vote will be the following Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Town Offices.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.