PLYMOUTH — The public schools in America's Hometown are going solar, and not just by a few photovoltaic panels.
Local school officials are banking on sunshine to help boost their budget, and they're going beyond installations on their own rooftops to get to their goal of deriving up to 80 percent of the district's electricity from solar sources.
On a recent Thursday morning, Plymouth School Committee members took a 15-minute drive to Plympton to visit a vast solar farm being installed by Borrego Solar Systems Inc., a San Diego-based company with offices in Lowell that owns and operates solar plants across the country.
Plymouth is one of the first school districts in Massachusetts to agree to buy electricity through the company. Under the terms of the deal, power generated by the Plympton facility will count as energy credits for the Plymouth schools. In renewable energy parlance, this is known as a “net-metering agreement,” and Plymouth officials believe it will result in big savings over the next 20 years.
"Once the farm goes online, we'll probably save in the neighborhood of $400,000 in the first year," with additional savings beyond, said Gary L. Costin, business administrator for the Plymouth public schools. The school district spent about $1.6 million for electricity in fiscal 2013.
There are at least 159 solar energy projects in schools in Massachusetts, according to the latest count by the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The state does not keep track of how many school districts have entered into net-metering agreements with commercial power producers, and it's unclear how many of them might be benefiting from off-site solar farms.
But the Plymouth public schools' solar initiative "is probably one of the largest solar net-metering contracts that we're aware of" for a school district in the state, said Mark Sylvia, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.
The Milton public schools considered entering a similar arrangement with an offsite solar farm, but so far has opted to keep its installations on school property, like many others. School districts that installed solar arrays on campus typically do not generate the amount of power expected by Plymouth through Borrego, given the size of those school installations.
Plymouth's deal with Borrego is the latest in a series of energy-saving moves the district has undertaken. Over the past few years, school administrators and teachers have employed a variety of green tactics, ranging from new technology (LED lighting; motion sensors; web-based lighting and thermostat controls; timers on vending machines) to old-fashioned common sense (shutting down unnecessary radiators; installing weather stripping on doors) to conserve energy and reduce costs.
As a result, the electricity budget for the district has shrunk by half, from $2.07 million in fiscal 2010 to $1.04 million for fiscal 2014. That's a big deal for the system, which has 13 schools and a total enrollment of 7,975 students.
In addition to the Plympton deal, the district is also adding solar panels atop the new Plymouth North High School.
"The roof at Plymouth North will be covered" with solar arrays, said Costin. "That, we figure, will save us $25,000 to $40,000 in the first year."
The high school already has some solar panels that help heat water in the school's kitchen, according to Costin. The new rooftop installation is expected to offset 20 percent of the building's electrical consumption.
"By the time all of our solar farms are online, we plan to have 75 to 80 percent of our electricity coming from solar" sources, said Costin, referring to Borrego's solar farm in Plympton and a second farm in Freetown that is still in the planning stages.
Borrego is installing 23,670 solar panels in Plympton. Located off Brook Street on land leased from Plympton Sand & Gravel, the arrays cover more than 23 acres — an area roughly the size of 18 professional football fields.
The panels are arranged neatly in rows, like shiny dark dominoes tilted toward the sun. Once they are linked to NStar's power grid, the energy they generate will flow into the grid, which will in turn produce credits that will lower the electric bills for Plymouth schools.
The 5.7-megawatt farm in Plympton should be finished in July, and will generate enough electricity to power 900 homes a year, according to Jared Connell, project developer for Borrego.
The company, one of several developing solar projects in Massachusetts, has also installed solar panels atop Harvard's Gordon indoor track building in Allston, as well as on the roof of Boston College High School. The company has also developed solar farms in Dartmouth, Easton, Easthampton, Freetown, Ludlow, Methuen, and Wareham, according to Connell. Borrego is also looking to develop additional sites in Walpole (construction is expected to begin later this year) and another 3.5-megawatt solar farm in Freetown that is in the Planning Board hearing process, Connell said.
The company has reached similar net-metering agreements with several municipalities, including Dartmouth, Easton, Easthampton, Ludlow, and Methuen.
Meanwhile, Boston-based Broadway Electrical Co. Inc. has been selected to install 1,320 solar panels at Plymouth North High School. Company president Jonathan B. Wienslaw said it hopes to start work in August or September, and the 382.80-kilowatt project should be ready this fall.
Sylvia said school solar projects offer the additional benefit of education, aside from the cost savings. They provide the opportunity for "teachable moments" in which students can learn "how renewable energy works," he said. "School districts are integrating solar into their curriculum."
In Plymouth, teachers will be able to take their students out to visit the solar farm in Plympton to teach them about photovoltaic panels, said Costin. A website will also be set up to show the amount of energy produced by the solar panels in real time, he said.
Costin said that once the school district reaches its goal of deriving 80 percent of its electricity from solar sources, the next step will be to reach 100 percent.
"This obviously was a large initiative that took us three years to do. Are we done? No," he said. "We're just going to keep on plugging."