NEW PEKIN, Ind. (WDRB) – Tucked behind the campus of the East Washington School Corporation lie 12 acres lined with row after row of newly installed solar panels.

The panels, which cost $4.2 million and generate about 2.4 megawatts of energy, provide most of the power for the district’s elementary, middle and high schools, and Superintendent Dennis Stockdale said  savings realized through a dramatic drop in electric costs will more than cover payments on the system’s 20-year lease.

In fact, Stockdale shared recent electric bills for East Washington Elementary and East Washington High that show the district has built up more than $21,000 in credits with Duke Energy after East Washington’s solar power system generated surplus energy back into the local power grid.

Those credits will come in handy during winter months, when days shorten and less solar energy is available, he said.

“When we run out of credits, then that’s when we’ll start having to pay,” Stockdale told WDRB News Thursday. “I don’t anticipate any kind of significant expenses in the future because we do have a very robust solar field. I believe at the time it was put in … it was probably the largest school field for a single corporation in the state of Indiana.”

In all, Stockdale said the district expects to save about $7 million over the course of the 20-year lease in what he described as a “very conservative” estimate.

“We’ll have benefit long after it’s paid off,” he said.

Stockdale said that the district had paid about $8,000 to $9,000 on each school’s electric bill before installing the solar power system, and East Washington expects to cut its electricity bill even more with $9.5 million HVAC upgrades currently underway at its three schools.

One financial benefit of the solar setup, he said, is that East Washington’s lease payments will remain flat while electric costs rise with inflation and other rate increases.

Another is that the district has more money to put into its classrooms. Stockdale said he’s hoping to invest savings generated through the solar power system will pay for more teachers and educational programs for East Washington students.

 “We’re able to make decisions on staffing and programs and have a lot of good information in front of us to be able to make those long-term that you don’t know when you’re trying to figure that inflation in,” he said. “We’re set. We’re set for the next 20 years.”

The solar power system can also provide learning opportunities for East Washington students.

Each school has a kiosk where students can see real-time energy use within the district, and that information will be available on the district’s website soon, Stockdale said. Students can then use that information to calculate East Washington’s energy costs, he said.

“There’s so many things they can do academically from that standpoint,” Stockdale said.

“Our kids are seeing that our school district is really helping that carbon footprint, making our impact on energy,” he added. “Maybe they’ll do a little bit more. Maybe they’ll start thinking about recycling differently. Maybe they’ll start talking to their parents about recycling differently or energy conservation at home and things like that, so we think it’s going to reach farther, much farther than just providing some electricity each month.”

Some school construction initiatives have faced public opposition, but Stockdale said that wasn’t the case with East Washington’s solar project.

He credited the East Washington school board for sharing important details about the project with the local community, such as how much the solar panels would cost, how they would be funded and what the energy system would mean for the district moving forward.

“It keeps us from having to raise taxes in other areas,” Stockdale said. “… By communicating that and getting that word out, they know what the investment is going to mean long-term for education for our kids. No pushback. Zero. A lot of people were interested in it.”

East Washington students report back to school Aug. 8. Stockdale said the district is planning to hold a ribbon-cutting for the solar project, but no date has been set.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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