(Updated) You Busy Friday Morning? 7-12 School Solar Is On The Block Again

Update: Looks like you got your Friday back: the Belmont Middle- and High School Building Committee has cancelled a scheduled Friday morning meeting at which they were to decide on the fate of a planned solar array at the Belmont Middle- High School. We will update you as soon as a new meeting day and time has been set.

Summary: It’s not deja vu: the Belmont Middle- and High School Building Committee is again seriously contemplating eliminating a rooftop solar array from the project, citing concerns about cost overruns. A vote is scheduled for Friday morning (February 11) at 8 AM. Please attend and show your support for the solar array and a Zero Net Energy 7-12 school. (Here is the meeting link.)

Also, take a moment to write an email to Committee members to voice your support for the rooftop solar array. You can send an email to: mshsbc@bloggingbelmont.com to make sure your email reaches individual committee members. Include the official Committee email address as well:  bhs-bc@belmont-ma.gov. (Emails sent to the official Committee email address just go to the Chair, Bill Lovallo, who may or may not pass them along to members.) Finally, sign the petition supporting the solar array.

How does Friday morning at 8AM look for you? I’m asking because it looks like – once again – we Belmontonians who voted for a “zero net energy” 7-12 school need to speak up once again to prevent a solar panel array from being cut from the project.

Once more unto the Building Committee, dear friends, once more

I know what you’re thinking: “didn’t we already save the solar array?!” And the answer to that is “yes, you did.” In fact, the photovoltaic solar array has been on the chopping block twice since 2019. Each time, the solar panels – which are intended as the main source of electricity for the facility – have ended up on a list of “features” susceptible to “value engineering” – essentially: cuts to the design of the facility made to live within budget constraints.

Blogging Belmont has written about this twice before in an attempt to alert the community to what appears to growing momentum on the 7-12 School Building Committee to eliminate the rooftop photovoltaic solar array. At each juncture, the community has risen up to voice its overwhelming desire and expectation to see the solar array added to the building. That included an April and September 2019 meetings of the Building Committee that saw close to 100 residents – including many BPS students – show up with handmade signs to show their support for a solar-powered, zero net energy 7-12 building.

Huge costs for taxpayers in ditching solar

I appreciate the difficulty that the building committee finds itself in – the latest in a long series of challenges to bring home this massive, nearly $300 million project. They’re trying to find millions of dollars in cuts to a building that is already more than 50% complete, while also avoiding cuts that could impact the educational mission of the school. (More on those cost overruns later.)

But the fact is that, unlike other items on the list of possible cuts, cutting the PV solar array will incur huge new costs for taxpayers in Belmont. How big? More than $170,000 a year. That will add up to $5 million in additional taxpayer dollars to power the 7-12 facility over the lifetime of the building – energy that was expected to come from the solar array and that otherwise could fund other initiatives in town.

Hand Made Signs Supporting Solar
Some of the signs supporting Solar from the 2019 building committee meeting. The committee left the solar array alone then…but its back on the chopping block again.

A Back Door Tax on Belmont?

And, as Belmont’s Phil Thayer – a longtime advocate of sustainability – points out: the benefits attached to solar extend far beyond the direct savings on electricity. The PV array reduces the annual costs of power the facility by 40%. (The already installed GeoX, which provides climate control has savings associated with it, as well.) Together, PV and GeoX combined get the 7-12 school to Class D ZNE (Zero Net Energy) which triggers a 7X multiplier on the value of lucrative Alternative Energy Credits(AECs).

In other words, by ditching PV, the school misses out on not just the electricity savings but the full benefit of AECs. And that’s just on the financial side.

There’s also the matter of shifting costs. In essence, the building committee will be imposing a new tax on the community by diverting taxpayer dollars to the 7-12 school that are currently earmarked for other needs. This, after the community has already assembled the funds to pay for the PV array, which was one of the main selling points of the facility.

Years of votes supporting solar & renewables

Belmont is not ambivalent about wanting solar at this facility nor does the Town consider it a mere “feature” to be added or discarded as is convenient. Indeed, years of votes, petitions and referendums has made clear that it is the explicit desire of the community to invest in renewable energy. Among those:

  • A unanimous vote in support of Zero Net Energy for BMHS by the Select Board, School Committee, Light Board Advisory Committee, and Energy Committee in the fall of 2018
  • Over 100 residents attend a BMHSBC meeting in person to support keeping solar in the BMHS construction budget at 4/22/19 and 9/26/19 BMHSBC meetings
  • In 2021, 77% of Town Meeting votes “Yes” for Article 11, the fossil-free new construction resolution
  • A 76% “Yes” vote in Belmont on a state-wide Ballot Question 3 calling for 100% renewable energy use within the next two decades.

If PV goes away, the damage to the Town’s reputation among taxpayers will be decimated. To those of us who voted for a promised ZNE facility, this looks like a bait and switch. Sell the green features and then ditch them when its convenient. Selling any future capitol project on such features – the library, the rink, etc. – will be an uphill battle, to say the least. Voters will (rightfully) conclude that the Town will say whatever it takes to get the debt exclusion passed, and then build the building they want to after they have their money.

Long and short: there’s a lot more at stake here than getting some columns to add up on an Excel spreadsheet. This is a decision that will have a lasting impact on Belmont’s budget. At the very least, that’s a decision that Town Meeting – an elected body which holds the Town’s purse strings – should have a say in, not an appointed committee.

Millions in cost overruns? Ask Skanska!

Which brings me to the final point, which is: where did these cost increases come from?! You’d think that before cutting a critical and money saving feature of this building, the Committee would dig deep on the reasons being presented for why the cuts (or “value engineering,” in building committee parlance) are even needed. This is the second round of such cuts – meaning that our contractor (Skanska) has repeatedly failed to live within the quoted budget for this project. At this point, I think an audit is in order, rather than another handout.

Instead, the Committee is coming to Belmont with no good answers to the why and where of the cost overruns. Public questions raised about that were met with defensive answers and posturing at a meeting last week. As Belmont resident Brian Iler wrote in a letter to supporters:

It feels like the committee is bending over backward to insulate Skanska & Co. from cost over-runs and Covid-related increases. Rather than examine their pricing, or demanding economies from contractors, they instead consider eliminating many important features of the Middle School. It was painful to watch.

(You can read Brian’s full letter here.)

As I see it: before turning to Belmont taxpayers to bail out a multi-national conglomerate with a market capitalization of almost $100 billion, the Building Committee should push back on Skanska to get a detailed accounting of these alleged cost increases and demand that the firm find efficiencies and savings in their own operations and keep this project on track and on budget.

I know asking huge corporations to take a back seat to the needs of families and communities isn’t really the zeitgeist these days in the U.S. but – speaking as a taxpayer who will have to foot the bill if PV goes away – I’m asking the Building Committee to take a hard line with Skanska on costs, while saving the PV array.