Arrays Away? Move To Delay Solar Panels From New HS Project As Critics Seek To Prevent $3M In Cuts

Photo: The Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee, residents and the design teams at the Sept. 20 meeting.

A move to eliminate the installation of solar arrays on the roof of the new high and middle school building currently under construction is gaining momentum as the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee is making tough cuts to save $19.2 million in cost overruns at the $295 million project.

The Sept. 20 gathering of the Building Committee was the third of four meetings dedicated to value engineering in an attempt to trim about nine percent of the anticipated expenses in the project. And the team select to find those savings – made up of the project’s design and construction teams; general contractor Skanska, architects Perkins+Will, and project manager Daedalus – came up with $19.5 million in both recommended cuts ($17.6 million) and those savings that needed further discussion ($1.9 million) before being removed from the budget. In addition, the team has pointed to nearly $6.4 million in expenses that could be rebid for possible additional savings.

The reduction in expenses are coming from the building’s exterior and interior, the systems, the site and structure and phasing and logistics. Some examples of the 70 items selected range from reducing the number the granite curbs on the site to the entrances and drop off locations ($101,100), electrical system savings ($105,000), simplify floor finishing and construction ($77,500) and reducing from two to one wall of marker boards in classrooms ($157,200).

As the committee members were discussing the design team’s recommendations on the possible cuts, committee member Bob McLaughlin interrupted the process to question why one of the largest expenses was not on the chopping block.

At $2.9 million, the photo-voltaic panel system – the solar panels on the building’s roof – is easily the costliest of big-ticket items up for consideration, which the design team said could be re-bid with the expectations that a new price tag for the panels would likely be in the $2.3 million range.

But even a reduction of $600,000 leaves too much in the budget, said McLaughlin. “We should take it away now,” said McLaughlin of the arrays. In McLaughlin’s view, the school’s first-class building was being downgraded to a second rate structure, calling it “a death by a thousand cuts.”

With the school’s expected life span of 50 years, it is incumbent that as much of the systems and interior designs be kept, said McLaughlin. If they are take off at this stage “we’ll never get a chance to [do bring it back in the future.]”

“I want these items we are giving up tonight back in,” said McLaughlin, referring to such expenditures as skylights in the high and middle school wings ($208,000 total) and wall tiles in the locker rooms ($157,300).

McLaughlin said he is not opposed to solar panels in fact, he believes by waiting three to five years after the building is opened would be financially advantageous. While most aspects of construction have been increasing in price in the past two decades, solar panels are seen a steady decrease in cost, dropping more than 60 percent between 2008 and 2018.

McLaughlin said after the meeting that the cost of $1.5 million for panels purchased in the mid-2020s which the town could purchase with a bond offering.

“Let’s bite the bullet now. Let’s take [the panels] off,” he said, recognizing the possibility of a political backlash with its move.

McLaughlin’s comments would be been a one-off sound off but for who joined his view.

Belmont’s chief educational official, Superintendent John Phelan, said “at the risk of sounding controversial” while he will be proud of a “green” school “but there is a priority list in my head … such as whiteboards which are teachable school programs that [the committee] said we would prioritize.”

And while having low operating costs in energy is an advantageous goal, by substituting lesser materials – in such places as flooring or stairs – the committee is creating long-term maintenance issues.

“We made a commitment to the town to build a quality school that will last a few years. There’s a lot of layers to that,” he said, adding that it’s good to have the conversation on items just as important as solar panels which has sizable support.

“There are other items that don’t have a constituency that really aren’t highlighted. No one talks about tiles on the first day.

‘An Awful Lot Of Money’

Phelan was followed immediately by Steve Dorrance, the town’s facility manager, who said that “no one is going to look up at the roof and say ‘don’t those PV panels look wonderful.”

“What you will do is walk through the school in five years and ask, ‘Why does the school looks the way that it does?’” Dorrance said, adding when the certainty of funding the retrofitting of the building goes before the public, “it will be a striking uphill fight.”

“It’s an awful lot of money that we can save now by putting back the $30,000 or $20,000 items. We can do a lot of those items for $3 million,” said Dorrance.

A possible removal of the panels would be a reversal of what the committee acknowledged was one of three main goals in designing the school was to construct a Net Zero Energy facility. In fact, during an initial value engineering discussion in May, the committee faced a roomful of solar supporters who demand the arrays be a priority and protected from cuts.

A small number of observers from the town’s Energy Committee and members of Sustainable Belmont attending last week’s meeting said the savings to the town – $5 million over 30 years – is well worth the upfront expense. They also pointed to town meeting votes that repeated supported a climate action plan that promotes solar and alternative energy in municipal structures.

Energy Committee’s Jacob Knowles said solar is a core element to the new school. He said the savings in energy costs could be used to fund the necessary maintenance to the building to keep the systems up to date.

“[Solar] is the smartest financial choice of the whole project with the most net cash flow relative to the investment on anything on this building,” said Knowles.

But two additional comments from committee members appeared to give the opponents to hold back on fitting solar panels during the school’s construction stage.

Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said since the building will either have arrays or not, the ultimate question is what is the annual cost difference between the school’s projected energy costs with and without the solar panels. With modern building controls, the latest window designs and other energy systems such as geothermal, the cost difference between the two outcomes could well be negligible to the committee members.

In addition, Committee chairman Bill Lovallo said the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is partnering with the town in constructing the school, has requested the building committee attend a review of the project expenses. “We are being sent to the principal’s office,’ said Lovallo, to explain the committee’s value engineering process.

Lovallo said the MSBA has a “hard and fast rule” that any expense reduction exercise at buildings under construction doesn’t compromise the schools educational program, a point reiterated by Phelan in his defense of discussing the delay of fitting the solar arrays on the school’s roof.

However the solar panel discussion is resolved, it will need to be concluded at the committee’s next meeting, tentatively scheduled for Thursday morning, Sept. 26, at 7:30 a.m. in the Homer Building.

“We have to make a decision on all these cuts [then],” said Lovallo.

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    • TK says

      Amen to that! A clear, pedestrian explanation as to how this project blew up by $20mm would be greatly appreciated. Inflation is certainly not an adequate excuse.

  1. Rebecca Rosen says

    Just the other night I was in the BHS cafeteria looking at the murals from my former friends in the BHS Class of 1994. I was thinking that at some point soon, those murals will cease to exist in that space, but the quote on one from Nelson Mandela will remain true and foremost in our minds as we push for a sustainable future for all and particularly for our children and students: “The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honor brotherhood, liberty, and peace.” – Nelson Mandela

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