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Solar array keeping lights on at schools in Smithtown district

A solar array carport at Smithtown High School

A solar array carport at Smithtown High School West. Credit: James Carbone

Smithtown Central School District will unveil Wednesday what state officials said was largest single solar site for a school district on Long Island.

The $6.4 million carport array shades about 3 acres of a Smithtown High School West parking lot. Its 5,422 solar modules generate 2.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year — enough to supply nearly a third of the district's electric needs.

It caps a yearslong, $23 million energy overhaul of district buildings that school officials said would cut outside electric demand by 90%, saving about $1 million a year in energy costs. The array itself — operating since May — is already an attraction. School "board members, administrators … People come from all over the state to look at the array," said Dan Leddy, Smithtown’s facilities director.

The district’s Y-shaped array rests on massive steel columns placed so they take up no parking spaces. The panels sit about 15 feet high, gently angled to catch the sun and funnel rain and snow onto a grassy median. Steel used on the job was fabricated at Tebbens Steel in Calverton.

"This is the biggest one we’ve done," said Stephen Foley, director of business development for Hauppauge-based Sunrise Power Solutions, which installed the array.

Smithtown made scores of upgrades to district buildings, replacing pipes, valves, even ceilings to eke out energy savings, said Kieran Moran, a senior account executive with Johnson Controls, the general contractor. One upgrade, funded by a $656,000 PSEG Long Island grant, replaced 28,000 light fixtures with LEDs and installed smart controllers to switch off devices like printers and computers when they’re not being used. Those changes will save 1.7 million kW hours annually, said Mike Voltz, PSEG’s director of energy efficiency and renewables.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority provided a $116,000 incentive through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative.

Smithtown expects reimbursement of just under half its costs from New York State and will earn back its investment in about nine years, district officials said. The panels come with a 25-year warranty and should, by its end, generate 80% of the power they do now.

About 50,000 of PSEG Long Island’s 1.1 million customers have some kind of solar array, said Voltz. Some giant arrays on Long Island's East End dwarf the Smithtown project; most are smaller residential roof arrays, which are generally cheaper if installed on new roofs.

There are fewer than 100 carport arrays but interest is growing, said Foley and Moran. Because they are free-standing, they avoid complications that might arise from roof maintenance. Moran said his company was working on projects with Brentwood, Connetquot, Bayport, Farmingdale and South Huntington schools. "We do see this as a trend," Moran said, though some districts — which he did not name — said they were not interested for aesthetic reasons.

Smithtown’s Leddy is already thinking about the next frontier. "If I can possibly install batteries, I can feed off the batteries when necessary" or feed power back to PSEG’s grid, he said.

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