Montessori School celebrates energy independence
Published: January 28, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - As the sun went down Saturday night, spirits were high under the solar awning at V.I. Montessori School and Peter Gruber International Academy.
Supporters of the school and members of the public were gathered for Solar Splash, an event with food, drinks and music to celebrate the school's newly won independence from a monthly V.I. Water and Power Authority electric bill.
"You have a choice," head of school Michael Bornn told the audience. "You can either go broke paying WAPA, move off island or install solar."
During 10 weeks last summer, between June and August, a crew from St. Thomas-based Solar Systems LLC installed an 85-kilowatt photovoltaic array at the school. The solar panels sit atop a 10,000-square-foot pavilion that doubles as a recreational area for students during the day.
Coupled with earlier solar installations, the project made Montessori completely energy-independent, school officials said. Some people at the event suggested Montessori may now be the first all-solar school in the Caribbean.
Senior student Kelsey Morrison, who helped lead a presentation about the territory's energy predicament, said Bornn invited a solar engineer to speak to students in October, providing the impetus for the event. Morrison said she and other students began to question why consumers should continue to support WAPA and its aging, oil-driven infrastructure.
"We thought it was absolutely ridiculous," Morrison said. "We wanted to start a revolution."
Like most solar installations, the project came with a high up-front cost - about $800,000, according to Bornn. But considering the territory's staggering electricity prices - WAPA began charging residential customers more than 50 cents per kilowatt hour at the beginning of January - the system should pay dividends in the long run.
Bornn said Montessori used to pay about $84,000 a year in electricity costs. He said the school should have the solar system paid off in about four years, after which the $84,000 line item can be redirected toward education throughout the expected 25- to 30-year lifespan of the system.
"Once we're done paying it off, that's $84,000 a year that goes to education and not to WAPA's LEAC," Bornn said, referring to the Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause.
In addition to celebrating the school's energy-independence landmark, Solar Splash was aimed at public outreach - convincing others to follow suit.
"We've shown it's feasible," Bornn said. "Now we're trying to convince other people to follow us."
Solar energy installers from Solar Systems and Pure Logic Clean Energy Systems offered information about their products.
"Most people don't understand the technology yet," said Edward McKenzie, managing director of Solar Systems.
He showed off a customer's WAPA bills before and after installing solar panels. The bill dropped from $740.27 to $5.54.
Like many at the event, McKenzie also highlighted the link between energy and the territory's economic health.
"The average restaurant pays $7,500 a month in electricity," he said. "That means they have to make $250 a day in profit - really that's selling about $750 in food - just to pay their WAPA bill."
Staff from Scotiabank were advertising green-energy loan programs with which consumers can turn their monthly WAPA bill into a loan payment for a solar panel system. Once the loan is paid off, there is no more WAPA bill.
But obstacles beyond the financial remain.
Morrison pointed out that traditions are an important part of V.I. culture, so change is never easy. She also spoke of the political power wielded by WAPA, a semi-autonomous agency that, according to payroll records, employs about 600 Virgin Islanders.
"A large percentage of V.I. families are employed by WAPA, so going against them is like going against their job," Morrison said.
Two notable absences from the event were WAPA and the V.I. Energy Office, both of which, organizers said, had agreed to attend.
- Contact Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.