Salmon River Central School District wants to build solar panels to make its own electricity – North Country Public Radio

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Salmon River school district is proposing to build a solar array behind the district’s fields. Plans show it wouldn’t disturb any currently used land. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

New York State is pursuing lofty green energy goals. By 2030, the state wants 70% of its electricity to come from renewable energy. That’s leading to a push of solar development across the state.

At the same time, schools are facing tightening budgets, with the possibility of state aid cuts in the coming years.

One North Country school district wants to tackle both, at the same time, by building a solar array out back.

Catherine WheelerSalmon River Central School District wants to build solar panels to make its own electricity

Tall trees and brush outline the back edge of Salmon River School District’s sports fields. The forest extends back. You’d think that’s the edge of the school district’s property. But it’s not.

“If you go straight out and over that’s where the 16-acre piece is going to be,” said Salmon River Superintendent Stanley Harper.

Harper pointed to a chunk of land off in the distance. It’s where the district wants to put a 16-acre solar array. He said the district doesn’t use the spot anyway.

“We don’t have it in any of our plans that we would use it,” Harper said. “So this becomes exactly what we need and that’s useful land now.”

On Tuesday, May 21, voters in the Salmon River school district will decide on whether or not to let it move forward with a plan to create its own electricity.

The proposed location for Salmon River's solar array. Photo courtesy: Salmon River

The proposed location for Salmon River’s solar array. Photo courtesy: Salmon River

The proposed solar array would generate five megawatts of energy—enough to power, heat and cool the whole campus.

The district has been moving away from fossil fuels and switched over to geothermal energy in 2011, said Salmon River’s business executive Natascha Jock. But the whole system needs electricity to run.

“It did increase our electrical bill, so we’re about half a million dollars a year,” Jock said. “So that will go away. So we’ll essentially have no fuel in our budget and we’ll have no electricity in our budget.”

The annual electricity bill is about a quarter of the district’s tax levy, Jock said. All that could be saved and go right back into the general fund.

Superintendent Harper said this project is about the future of Salmon River, and not just its finances. It’s also about the community looking for climate change solutions.

“It’s about the human race,” Harper said. “We all have to contribute somehow, some way. And if we don’t, I think we’re being foolish because science is not lying [about] what’s going on across the world and on our Earth. So we have to do everything we possibly can. And so for Salmon River, this is a good way for us to start to help contribute to make our world a better place.”

The project will cost about $16 million. It will borrow money through bonds and use New York State building aid, and state and federal grants to pay for the construction. Those, Harper said, mean the project will pay for itself in less than a year. The district will hire a company to build and maintain the solar array and the land around it.

The solar panels will also be educational, Harper said.

“Our kids are going to be able to learn the whole process and see it. You’re going to have kids are going to fall in love with this because they believe in helping make the world better,” he said. “So they’re going to create jobs. They’re going to get kids going down these pathways.”

Harper said he hopes other school districts will be inspired to go down this pathway, too. He said he got advice from North Adirondack Central School and a similarly sized school district in Maine about their decisions to go solar.

Voters can weigh in on the project during an election on Tuesday, May 21, from 12-8 pm at Salmon River. 

NCPR’s climate change series is made possible through the generous support of Margot and John Ernst.

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