LOWER TOWNSHIP — Construction has begun on a 1.8-megawatt solar field off Route 9, which is expected to supply 85 percent of Lower Cape May Regional High School’s energy needs and save the school district an estimated $125,000 a year.

The school district is not paying for the solar system and has no costs associated with construction or maintenance, said Business Administrator Frank Onorato. The district has merely agreed to purchase the energy, which is expected to shave almost one-quarter off its $450,000 per year electric bill.

“We spend nothing. It’s cheaper and it’s green energy,” Onorato said.

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Meanwhile, a second solar project is planned at the Lower Township Elementary School District, with construction expected to begin within months and take about one year. It will include three sets of panels serving the Maud Abrams, Charles W. Sandman and Carl T. Mitnick schools. That project would supply 1.5 megawatts.

Marc DeBlasio, of Remington, Vernick, & Walberg Engineers, the engineering firm for the Lower Township Board of Education, envisions savings of $225,000 per year or $3.4 million over 15 years. These savings rely not only on the solar panels, but some other initiatives, including an energy audit that will uncover conservation measures in the three schools.

DeBlasio said the ground-mounted solar systems will go in behind the ball fields at the Mitnick School, along Ferry Road, and between the Maud Abrams and Sandman schools. He expects them to supply about 90 percent of the schools’ energy usage. The elementary district will also pay none of the construction costs but would agree to buy the energy, which is at a much cheaper price than conventional sources.

“We’re paying 16 to 18 cents per kilowatt hour. This would be 8 cents. It’s a heck of a savings,” DeBlasio said.

Both projects are being constructed by South Jersey Industries and other companies. The key to the projects is what is known as a Solar Power Purchase Agreement (SPPA). This gives investors in the system a known market for many years. Another key are tax incentives, including a 30 percent federal tax credit.

The SPPA can also sell what is known as Solar Renewable Energy Credits, or SREC’s. State laws require power companies using conventional carbon-based energy sources to purchase SREC’s, though the price has plummeted in New Jersey as more solar systems have gone on line.

In 2010, the SREC’s, each one of which represents 1 megawatt, sold for almost $700, but DeBlasio said they are now closer to $100.

“It’s supply and demand. The investors had tax exposure and they would rather buy solar panels than pay it to Uncle Sam,” DeBlasio said.

The board has approved the plans based on finding a suitable SPPA. DeBlasio said only a few details remain to be worked out and they should not be a problem.

“If all goes well and the agreement gets codified, I’d say fall to winter construction will start,” DeBlasio said.

The high school project may get turned on during the Thanksgiving recess.

“They need a three-day window to make the switchover,” Onorato said.

Posts to hold the panels are already going up on a 13-acre site just south of the school. The former site of the Cape Concrete Plant owned by the Catanoso family was approved for 48 townhouses, but then the real estate market tanked. School Superintendent Jack Pfizenmayer said the deal will benefit taxpayers of the district that serves Lower Township, Cape May and West Cape May.

“We went through a lot of roadblocks, but it’s finally coming to fruition,” Pfizenmayer said.

Besides the energy savings, Onorato said the systems will be incorporated into the curriculum, including engineering and computer classes. He said there are no concerns about reduced energy use in the summer because the school has a lot of summer programs and air conditioning it kept on to prevent mold growth.

The two solar projects are the largest in the township to date. The Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority gets energy from a 1.3-megawatt solar system that also used a SPPA with South Jersey Industries. The LTMUA got in early and was able to lock in a price of 3.75 to 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour during the 15-year agreement.

To put the size of the system into perspective, a 1.3-megawatt field would power 1,250 average-sized homes. The two systems at the schools are even bigger.

Schools have embraced solar power in New Jersey, some building their own systems and others more recently using the SPPA option as the price of SREC’s have declined.

Margate was one of the first in the state to install them in 2005. Since then, they have been installed to power schools in Galloway Township, Egg Harbor Township, Stafford Township, Northfield, Hamilton Township, Greater Egg Harbor Regional, Little Egg Harbor Township, Mainland Regional and Richard Stockton College.

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