You may have read that Pottsville Area School District has saved more than $100,000 since installing thousands of solar panels on the roofs of its buildings last year.
That’s what’s reported in the Thursday edition of the Republican Herald newspaper.
Here’s what the paper tweeted out about the story, continuing this narrow narrative:
That’s great news, right? All our skepticism over these solar panels – approved mostly in secret back in 2019 – was misplaced. Everyone grab a rake, we need help with all this dough rolling in!
It’d be great news if it were true. That headline left out one key aspect of the story … the solar panels aren’t free.
Canary Fact Check
- Q: Did Pottsville Area School District benefit financially from the solar panels?
- A: Slightly.
- Q: Did Pottsville Area School District save more than $100,000 through solar panels?
- A: Not even close.
Pottsville School Board Provides Update on Solar Panels
Here’s what the headlines aren’t saying about the solar panels. This is what the newspaper decided to bury even though the school made it the first note during an update provided on the project on Wednesday:
The cost to lease the solar panels – money sent to an LLC known as Pottsville School District Solar Partners – totaled $140,249.97, or $15,583.33 per month.
Let’s pretend we already know who makes up Pottsville School District Solar Partners (even though we don’t ). That figure is about $32,000 more than the $108,869.36 Pottsville says it saved on electricity costs.
Those totals account for the entirety of the project, from November 2020 through Aug. 31, 2021, or 9 months.
There are two other revenue streams – even though “savings” isn’t actually revenue, as in money received. It’s money not spent, based on whatever Pottsville is using for comparison.
Regardless, Pottsville actually did get revenue in the form of a payment from PPL Electric for the excess energy produced by the solar panels. That totals $2,824.89, a payment the school actually received.
There’s also the sale of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates. These are essentially like a carbon offset that a company purchases to prove they invest in renewable energy. Pottsville is a seller in that marketplace because of the energy it generates with the solar panels. So far, the school’s sold 702 SRECs and netted a total of $20,521.
Both those figures, the PPL money and the SREC cash, are accurate through May 31, 2021, or 6 months.
Are the Solar Panels Making Money for Pottsville?
Now, it’s difficult to look at these numbers at face value and say the school district is under water on the solar panels. Because at face value, it is. That’s not accurate, however.
Some of those figures cover 9 months and some cover 6.
So, let’s look at the average monthly cost vs. savings and revenue to determine how the solar panels are doing.
The lease cost on the solar panels, money paid out to this mysterious LLC, is $15,583.33 per month.
We’re told the district saved more than $100,000 in electricity cost since they turned the panels on. That’s equal to $12,096.59 per month.
Excess Energy Produced
Pottsville collected more than $2,800 in revenue from PPL Electric over the course of the first 6 months of the project. Let’s assume a steady average and say Pottsville makes $470.81 a month on energy production. That’s money the district actually receives, not a “savings”.
The school also sold more than 700 SRECs it earned with its solar production. They weren’t sold on a monthly basis, so it’s hard to account for this in the comparison, but for the sake of argument, that’s equal to 117 per month. Their cost fluctuates but on average, the school got $29.23 per SREC over the first 6 months of the project. That’s equal to $3,419.91 per month on SREC sales.
Doing the Math, Showing the Work
Here’s how that breaks down on a monthly basis:
- Expenses (Lease): $15,583.33
- Income (Total/mo): $15,987.31 | +$403.98
- Savings: $12,096.59
- PPL Revenue: $470.81
- SRECs: $3,419.91
Based on our math, on average per month, Pottsville Area School District sees a net positive on its 3,200 solar panels of $403.98. Over the course of a year, that’s equal to $4,847.76.
That figure hardly seems worth the need to rush this decision through the school board at the end of 2019. It created a lot of public mistrust and likely led to Board President Bud Quandel’s ousting during the Primary Election earlier this year.
And that’s only considering this current arrangement where Pottsville is leasing the solar panels. In a couple years, the school will buy the solar array and then it’ll be on the hook for maintenance of them as well as paying back a 30-year bond issue.
You could tell based on the way this data was presented at Pottsville’s latest school board meeting on Wednesday (Oct. 13), that these numbers aren’t exactly showstoppers. If only the school board had the newspaper running interference for it all the time, it wouldn’t be an issue.
How and why the paper determined, based on looking at the information the school provided on the meeting agenda that they could get away with highlighting this alleged savings and bury mention of the actual cost is beyond our scope. Here’s the information as it appeared on the meeting agenda. You can see they’re not exactly hiding the lease cost. It’s the first thing listed:
Aside from that coverage, school board members weren’t exactly over the moon on the numbers. In fact, not one board member said a word – not even a peep – about the report they’d just seen and heard.
Instead, the board had new Business Manager Stacy Stair present the report. She wasn’t even around when the project was approved. And all she did was essentially read what you can see above.
The only thing she added was some detail on why the school saved money on electricity. It was because of a switch in energy providers:
“That actually lets us save more money because we are on off-peak savings versus peak savings. Our solar panels actually generate power for us during peak hours,” Stair said.
Because People Asked …
We also find it interesting that the school board said via the agenda that it was providing this information because someone asked at the previous school board meeting. This was only the second update on the solar panel project since it started almost a year ago. Really, the school board shouldn’t wait until someone asks for an update. It should be assumed that people want updates monthly.