The costs of electricity are rising and the Panther Valley School District has already gone ahead with a utility improvement plan that will help save thousands of dollars over the next few years by replacing dated equipment and updating fixtures.

The district, however, is still looking for new ways to help reduce the financial burden that looms as rates continue to rise. The school board has approved a contract with Reading Electric to pursue competitive grants for solar energy funding. If the district wins the grant, they could be on the cutting edge of providing an alternative energy source that would directly impact the district's bottom line.

The state is currently offering $80 million to nonprofit organizations as part of a solar energy program. Additionally, PPL Electric is also offering a subsidy to organizations that are pursuing solar energy.

"This is the time, with all the new legislation. This is the way to go," said Superintendent Rosemary Porembo. "We're watching our budget and our electric bill and we have to look for alternatives."

If the district receives the grants, it would enable it to install a system of photovoltaic cells on the roofs of the high school and middle school.

The district is hoping to get $1 million from the state and an additional $500,000 from PPL. They will still need to finance approximately $2.5 million of the estimated $4 million project; however, business manager Kenneth Marx Jr. explained that the district stands to save approximately $4,841,080 over the next 30 years if they pursue the project. This amount will more than adequately cover the debt service and the maintenance required to keep the solar panels functioning.

Additionally, the district could see some added benefits from the installation.

Maintenance supervisor George "Smokey" Krajnak explained that the heat generated by the panels will help reduce the snow load on the roofs and the panels themselves will protect the existing roofs from UV exposure.

"This should also help improve our roof life," he said.

Krajnak also hopes that as the district continues with the current improvement projects, the panels could provide as much as 60 percent of the energy needed to run the buildings.

"If we didn't do this, we'd be looking at adding mills just to cover electricity," said Porembo. "We'd have to narrow our other options. This will give us the option to maintain what we're doing now."

The real savings for the district will come in the form of renewable energy credits. Under PA Act 213 of 2004, Pennsylvania utility companies are required to get a certain percentage of their energy from a renewable source within 15 years and incentives in the form of RECs are offered to providers.

The board held a special meeting on March 24 to approve the contract with Reading Electric. The contract was approved by a 7-1 vote. Director William Hunsicker voted against the contract and director Anthony DeMarco was absent.