School solar projects offer savings, educational opportunities

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 731 views 

Dorper sheep help to maintain the grounds underneath the arrays at Cedar Ridge Schools in Independence County. Farmington School District is considering whether the sheep will be a part of regenerative agriculture practices under the arrays for its district.

Northwest Arkansas school districts are adding solar arrays to meet electricity demand and reduce energy costs. One project in Farmington will include an agricultural component and educational partnership with Little Rock-based nonprofit Heifer International.

Meredith Hendricks, director of sustainability operations for Little Rock-based Entegrity, said the energy services company offers educational programs with all of its school projects. The goal is to give back to schools long-term and educate students about each project’s energy savings.

“We partnered with Heifer specifically because of that education program,” Hendricks said. “Our education program has a lot of different things involved in it, and our partnership with Heifer is one of those … Heifer actually brings in teachers … and they teach people of all different ages and backgrounds about different kinds of farming practices, using regenerative farming as the baseline for what they teach.”

In May, the Farmington School Board approved a $3.88 million energy savings contract with Entegrity. The project is expected to be completed by summer 2022 and reduce Farmington Public Schools’ energy and maintenance expenses by nearly $300,000 annually. The school district has almost 2,600 students and manages 600,000 square feet of facilities.

“Many of the district’s primary education facilities are older,” Superintendent Jon Laffoon said. “On those campuses, updates to HVAC and lighting systems were necessary. It’s exciting that during my first year as superintendent of the district, the board prioritized creating funding for raises and addressing the infrastructure of our older facilities. We found a way to pay for major upgrades, create financial savings, and make our district safer and more energy responsible.”

The scope of work includes district-wide LED lighting, HVAC replacements and tune-ups, water conservation measures on school fixtures, an emergency backup generator and new stadium lighting. Entegrity also will install three arrays with a combined generating capacity of 1.68 megawatts DC (direct current). Farmington will have two arrays on campus: one at Jerry “Pop” Williams Elementary and the other at the high school. The location for the off-site array has yet to be determined.

Entegrity will own the arrays and sell the electricity they generate to the school district. The land for the onsite arrays will be managed with regenerative agriculture practices that combine wildflowers and prairie grasses. According to Entegrity, the project is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to burning 3.25 million pounds of coal.

“Farmington Public Schools is leading the way in demonstrating how comprehensive savings measures, multiple financing strategies and close team coordination can come together to solve a number of problems with a single solution,” said Chris Ladner, founder and CEO of Entegrity.

Hendricks said Donna Kilpatrick, ranch manager and land steward for Heifer USA, will teach students in classrooms and the field about regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration practices. In addition, they’ll do hands-on soil testing in the field, allowing the students to understand how these systems work, Hendricks said.

Meredith Hendricks

“We hope to do this hands-on learning with the soil that is underneath those solar arrays,” she said. “The students will have easy access to it. They can watch the progress over time. It might be something that they do each year ongoing. The program right now is looking at this first year. Still, the students could certainly do analysis over the long-term to see how they can positively affect the soil and soil health, and vegetation within the space under those solar arrays.”

Regenerative agriculture regards looking at ways to use agriculture to improve long-term soil health, she said. Farming practices can improve soil health without bringing external implements into it.

Kilpatrick plans to teach various components within regenerative agriculture. Highlighting its importance, she said the ecosystem is failing because of the long-term use of extractive methods for agriculture. As a result, soils have become depleted, and studies show they have about 60 years remaining for cultivation, seed germination, and crop production.

“It’s really important to look at the source of agriculture, which is the soil which grows healthy forage for animals and crops,” she said. “We feel like it’s incredibly important, and it ties in with our mission at Heifer International because our mission is to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth. And the care for the earth part is so important. It’s not just caring for the earth. It’s stopping climate change and being able to turn the thing around before it’s too late.”

She also noted the importance of carbon sequestration for building healthy soils. She said some tend to become fixated on carbon, but she more broadly focuses on building a healthy ecosystem. That regards plant diversity and soil microbes, and whether soils are generated with microbes, earthworms and dung beetles that help aerate the soil and improve water retention and cycles.

Hendricks said Entegrity looks to partner with Heifer on other projects across the state. Kilpatrick said Entegrity approached Heifer about the partnership before the pandemic and talks about the collaboration recently resumed.

“Entegrity is one of the leaders in LEED certification and for sustainable solutions for housing and building,” Kilpatrick said. “There are schools that they’ve partnered with who are going to be putting in these solar panels, and it’s a good fit. So we’re excited about it.

“One of the things that we do at Heifer is teaching people how to farm and about regenerative agriculture, so we feel like school-aged kids are perfect for that,” Kilpatrick added. “Get them interested in renewable resources and maybe farm in a way that the ecosystem can heal.”

Adam Ness, an organizational coordinator for Entegrity, said that some are resistant to farmland being used for solar farms in states with an abundance of arrays. It’s more common in coastal states, but the company has experienced it in Arkansas to a lesser degree. The dual-use of solar farms for agriculture and energy have helped to calm fears, he said.

“Our goal is to increase the surrounding and underlying property value,” Ness said. “I think that’s a big area that our industry has to improve upon — needing to be better community partners or else we will run into those NIMBY [“not in my backyard”] issues so common on the coasts. My back of napkin math predicts at least 10,000 acres of solar in Arkansas by the end of the decade. That’s hard to fathom — and a lot of land that we can do more than produce energy with.”

In the first quarter, electricity generation from solar and wind resources rose by 24.3% and 10.5%, respectively, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Combined, solar and wind increased by 13.6% and accounted for 12.8% of U.S. electricity generation.

Recently, North Little Rock-based renewable energy company Today’s Power Inc. (TPI) announced a project to build a 1-megawatt solar array for Berryville School District. The array will be built near its campus and meet 80% of the district’s electricity demand. It’s expected to be completed by the end of 2021.

“Berryville School District wants to be good stewards of our resources,” Superintendent Owen Powell said. “Investing in utility-scale solar is the most cost-effective way to benefit all who work and learn in Berryville Schools, while also investing in a green, clean, renewable source of generation right here in our community.”

Through an agreement with TPI, Berryville School District will purchase electricity the array produces for the next 25 years.

“TPI is proud to be partnering with Berryville Schools,” TPI President Michael Henderson said. “With this solar array, the district will produce green energy, which will benefit all of its students by lowering the school’s energy costs. In addition, it will be an excellent educational resource. One project will rarely help so many students, teachers and staff.”

Also, TPI and Viola School District in Fulton County recently dedicated a 480-kilowatt solar array on its campus.

The array is expected to produce 90% of the school district’s energy usage annually. The 1,280-panel system can produce more than 850,000 kilowatt-hours per year. North Arkansas Electric Cooperative will provide the remainder of the school district’s energy needs.

“As a public school district, we feel it is our duty and obligation to use all available resources to be fiscally responsible,” Superintendent John May said. “The development of a clean, renewable energy system for our campus is an excellent example of how we are fulfilling that responsibility. As the district’s carbon footprint is reduced, savings are realized.”

TPI and Viola have a 20-year agreement, and the savings from the system is expected to be reallocated to school district resources, according to a news release.

“We are pleased to collaborate with the Viola School District as they implement cutting-edge technology,” Henderson said. “All of their students would benefit from lower-cost power while also contributing to a healthier climate.”