High school students Lucy Medd, left, Siri Pierce, center, and Yusur Jasim addressed the Portland Public Schools Board on Aug. 6 as representatives of SolaRISE. The group urged the board to support a proposal to install solar panels to power schools. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Many Portland residents see the Back Cove as a perfect place to run, kick a ball around or bike a scenic route. Lucy Medd, however, sees trails and fields that could be under several feet of water by 2100 if aggressive action isn’t taken.

The rising senior at Portland High School told the Portland Public Schools Board this month about running the Back Cove trail with her cross-country team and seeing ribbons at eye level tagging trees along her route that indicate where high tides are expected to reach because of sea level rise caused by climate change. The tide at Back Cove will rise 6 feet by 2100, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Eighty years may seem like a long time, but many of our current elementary school students will experience these high tides in their lifetime,” Medd said.

To lessen that probability, Medd and fellow students at all three of Portland’s public high schools are calling on the school board to use solar energy in the city’s 18 schools to replace fossil fuel use that contributes to climate change.

On Tuesday, the board is scheduled to consider a resolution directing the superintendent to implement a solar energy program harnessing electricity from an offsite solar project.

“School systems work for children, for us. You teach us and empower us so we’re ready to face whatever comes our way,” Siri Pierce, a rising senior at Casco Bay, told board members. “And right now combating the climate crisis is what is most important for our futures.”

STUDENTS RALLY FOR SOLAR ENERGY

The youth group SolaRISE Portland marches to Deering Oaks in May to advocate for the installation of solar panels on Portland public schools. The district is now considering a proposal for an offsite array to provide electricity to the city’s schools. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The vote Tuesday will culminate a two-year effort to harness solar energy at Portland schools.

In 2017, students and staff at King Middle School and the Portland Climate Action Team approached the school district about a solar energy project. At the time, city and district facilities staff said the project was a low priority because of upfront costs and questionable long-term savings.

But since then, the idea has gained support from students, staff and community members.

In January, Casco Bay students formed a coalition with students from Deering and Portland high schools to urge school officials to switch to solar energy.

The students formed SolaRISE Portland and have received nearly $20,000 toward the effort from local businesses and individuals through GiveGab, an online donation platform.

At an Aug. 6 meeting, school board members considered a proposal that would install solar panels on both King Middle School and the Portland Arts & Technology High School.

Officials acknowledged the King Middle School project would not generate large amounts of electricity, but would enable students to learn how sustainability efforts work and how solar energy is produced.

At the meeting, Superintendent Xavier Botana said a $40,000 donation left by the late Portland philanthropist Alfred Padula also could help fund solar panels at the school.

OFFSITE SOLAR ARRAY

In an email Friday, Botana said the district has withdrawn the King proposal at this point and is considering instead a larger, off-site solar project.

The resolution going before the board Tuesday also directs the superintendent to consider partnering with the city of Portland and adjacent communities to secure a larger scale of operation, to share costs and resources, and to become more competitive for state and federal grants.

A study by Competitive Energy Services – an  energy consulting service in Portland concluded that an off-site solar array would be a better economic investment than an initial plan to place onsite solar arrays at individual schools.

Portland public schools use 7.8 million kilowatts of energy a year ,which costs the schools $866,413. Competitive Energy Services believes that a 3,500-kilowatt offsite solar array would meet 70 to 85 percent of the schools’ energy needs, and could save the schools up to $11.8 million over 20 years, depending on the different billing types and market.

Charlie Agnew, director of Energy Services at CES, has proposed that the school identify a developer to finance and build the project. Costs would be paid through a power purchase agreement for a 20-year period.

Agnew said Portland has good timing on its side. Economic and market factors are making solar arrays economically feasible for schools. He noted that solar materials and maintenance costs have dropped 29 percent over the last decade.

Also, in June, the Legislature increased the required amount of electricity that must come from renewable sources in the state’s renewable portfolio standard. The bill increases the level of renewable energy usage in Maine from 10 percent to 50 percent by 2030.

Agnew said that if the school does not install solar array now, future energy costs will likely rise. Among the waning financial incentives are federal tax credits for solar installations that are at 30 percent now but are declining in increments until they reach 10 percent in 2022.

That tax credit would be available to a private partner in the solar project.

STUDENTS PROVIDE ADDED JOLT

The leadership of students made an impression on school officials this month.

“We talk about the value and importance of student voice all the time and this is a perfect example of why it matters,” Botana said at the Aug. 6 school board meeting. “These students are on their way to making significant and lasting change in this community and, I do not think it is hyperbolic to say, in the world.”

Pierce, one of the leaders of SolaRISE Portland, said that the group started after her high school’s “green team” – the sustainability club – decided to focus on clean energy. The group was motivated after the United Nations 2018 report outlining worsening food shortages and wildfires starting as soon as 2040 and irreversible climate change by 205o.

“That is not an environmental crisis, it is going to be a human rights crisis,” Pierce said.


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