Initiative could provide free technical assistance to towns, school districts adopting clean energy practices

 COVENTRY — As the school committee begins to consider renewable energy as a means of saving money, its members heard during last week’s meeting from Chris Kearns, a project manager with the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (OER), about an initiative to provide free technical assistance to municipalities and school districts thinking about adopting clean energy practices.

“It’s something that we think we’re going to pursue, looking at, potentially, some significant energy cost [savings] with a minimal investment on our end,” Superintendent Craig Levis said Thursday, having already met with Kearns.

“We need to do this type of work,” Levis continued, adding that it could save the district up to 20 percent on its some $800,000 annual energy bill. “We need to look for cost savings.”

The OER is currently also working with the Chariho and Exeter-West Greenwich school districts. In its assistance to those districts, Kearns said the OER first provided help drafting and structuring requests for proposal (RFPs). 

“The big thing that we recommend, regardless of the entity, is make sure that you have a qualified clean energy financial consultant on board to review these proposals,” he added. “It’s not like a traditional facility or finance director, this is a really in-the-weeds type of situation.”

Kearns said he recommends districts issue two RFPs—one for a consultant, and the second to elicit project proposals. He added that the other districts received consulting proposals between $13,000 and $15,000. 

“What we encouraged the school districts to do was just to issue RFPs to get as many proposals as you can get so you can evaluate them,” he added. 

And if the school committee decides to proceed with a renewable energy company, a recommended provision in the RFP would require the company to reimburse the committee for what it spent on the consultant.

The project RFP would also ask developers to identify a project location and to estimate how much of a savings they can provide.

But there’s also an academic component to the OER’s initiative.

“We want to make sure that at the end of the day, the bottom line is, first, fiscal savings to the school, where they’re reducing their electricity long-term and have a predictable [budget line item],” he said. “Separate from that is an academic piece, where we want the developers to provide some creative academic proposals for this project.”

For example, Kearns said, a developer might install some sort of software to allow students to observe things like power generation and environmental emissions impacts of the project.

Field trips, specially-designed curricula and scholarships are other academic opportunities developers have offered in the past, Kearns added. 

If Coventry chooses to take up the OER on its offer to assist in the process, Kearns said the agency would act as a sort of “security blanket.”

“We will be with you at every meeting that you have with the developers and financial consultants,” he added. 

The idea of adopting renewable energy in Coventry was hatched by Committee Member Luke Murray, who suggested during a meeting in March that the committee begin exploring the possibility as a way of offsetting expenses to the district.

“I think it’s the responsible thing to do,” Murray added Thursday. “We’re going through budget cycles, there’s limited areas where we can capture funding, it’s low risk.”

And while Levis is all for exploring renewable energy, he added that it ultimately will be up to the school committee to decide whether or not to move forward.

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