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Solar project for Kingsport schools may be in jeopardy

Rick Wagner • Oct 28, 2019 at 9:35 AM

KINGSPORT — A disagreement between electric provider AEP Appalachian Power and green power company Ameresco means at least a temporary halt in moving forward with plans to put solar panels atop most Kingsport public schools.

The school board at a meeting earlier this month had been set to approve the next step in engineering. If approved, that would have committed the school system to paying for engineering costs if the system did not move forward with the proposal.

WHAT DO SYSTEM, AEP AND AMERESCO SAY?

“I can’t tell you much more about it now,” Steve Seifried, Knoxville-based account representative for Ameresco, said after the meeting. “Every project’s got some hiccups.” However, he said Ameresco officials hope to move as quickly as possible.

John Shepelwich of Appalachian Power said the ongoing discussion about the program concerned a solar system bought by the school system or leased to own, not a power purchase agreement.

“That’s the way the statute reads right now,” Shepelwich said of laws enforced by the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. “We don’t want to just throw a monkey wrench into this thing.”

However, he said Ameresco is not a public utility as defined by state law.

Superintendent of Schools Jeff Moorhouse said the school system learned Tuesday that AEP is not agreeing that Ameresco can own and operate a solar system and sell power to Kingsport City Schools through a power purchase agreement (PPA). In a nutshell, he said the issue is “regulatory approval” of the Ameresco-owned and -installed panels making it a utility and thus having to meet Tennessee requirements for utilities.

“Ameresco and AEP need to come to an agreement on that before we move forward,” Moorhouse said. “This has just come to our attention.”

Moorhouse said City Attorney Mike Billingsley is looking at the situation.

“If they (AEP and Ameresco) can get that worked out, that’s still of interest,” Moorhouse said.

WHAT IS THE PLAN IN QUESTION?

The no-capital-cost plan is the route school and Ameresco officials decided to take after the board and the city leaders turned down the idea of a solar power system owned by the school system with up-front capital costs.

Over 20 years, the Ameresco project is to save the school system about $3 million in electric charges. AEP would allow the solar panels to produce a certain amount of solar power for use by the school system, with high output in the summer when schools are empty being “banked” on the grid and allowed to be used on cloudy or wintry days.

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