As I See It: The Sun Also Rises on Fairfield’s High Schools
In December of 2015, the town shot down a project, two years in the making, to install solar carports at the Fairfield train station. In so doing it passed up a chance to provide enough clean solar power to meet 90 percent of the electricity needs of nearby Tomlinson Middle School, a major power consumer. The carports would have been installed at no cost to the town while saving at least $70 thousand per year for the next twenty years. That’s at least $2.4 million.
Fairfield has a clean-energy track record to be proud of, but the killing of the train station project, perpetrated on the feeblest of NIMBY concerns and alternate construction fantasies, was a black mark on that record - especially as the town was wringing its hands over the departure of GE and the state’s looming budget crisis.
But I come not to harp on that unwise and petty decision (OK, I’m harping just a little bit), but to bring your attention to another project that has risen from the ashes and is now making its way through the town’s approval machinery: solar carports at the parking lots of Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde high schools.
The implementation plan for these carports parallels those of a dozen other town renewable energy installations, and the missed opportunity at the train station (there I go again). The town selects a fully-bonded solar power vendor to construct and maintain the solar carports at no cost to the town under a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). The vendor sells the solar electricity to the town at a discounted rate that is fixed for the 20-year term of the PPA. Not a single parking space will be lost, traffic flow will not be affected, and there will be no impediment to busses, snow removal equipment, or paving equipment. No neighbor views are affected at Ludlowe, and the few potential issues at Warde are being proactively addressed with natural screening. At the end of the PPA, the town can opt to purchase the system, hire the vendor to manage it, or direct the vendor to simply remove it - whatever is in the best interests of the town at the time.
Both schools already have rooftop solar panels, but the addition of the carports will allow the schools to get 2/3 of their power from the sun. At minimum, the town will save $1.2 million over the 20-year term, but that’s assuming the prevailing utility rates remain unchanged; a more realistic savings estimate would be $2 million or more.
Parking lots in the right locations are being recognized as ideal for solar power generation. The land under a parking lot, as opposed to open space or farmland, has already been severely degraded as a natural environment. Why not put it to work making clean energy instead of unpaved, less developed land?
Aside from the self-evident financial and environmental benefits, solar carports offer other tangible returns:
• Covered parking protects cars from the elements;
• Several walkways will be covered by the solar panels;
• Improved security (cameras) and lighting;
• “Traffic-calming” effect of carport columns;
• Electric vehicle charging stations will incentivize the use of EV’s for commuting.
But perhaps the greatest added benefit is educational. Students and faculty will be in daily visual contact with the renewable-energy future, creating jumping-off points for teaching opportunities in physics, environmental science, economics, and more. Kids “get” climate change and clean energy; they will be proud that their schools “get it” also.
I think the solar carports look great! In the Sunbelt where I lived for a while, covered parking is coveted, whether or not it produces clean energy. You can read more about the projects, review FAQ’s, and see renderings of the arrays on Fairfield’s Clean Energy Task Force website: http://www.fairfieldct.org/cetf. Click on “Files and Documents” in the right-hand column, and then find two files called “high school solar carports.”
Barring any procedural snags, the project is scheduled to go before the Board of Selectmen on May 16. If approved, construction can begin in June and be completed by the end of the summer. If you agree that the high school solar carport project is a financial, environmental, and educational no-brainer for Fairfield, and that you want to see the town maintain its leadership in clean energy, write to the Board of Selectmen and let them know: email@example.com.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "As I See It" column appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.