First, geothermal heating. Now, solar power.

The Tamaqua Area School District is considering a proposal to have solar power grids installed on its properties.

By doing so, the district could save $5.2 million on its energy bills over the next 20 years, according to Reiner E. Jaeckle, chief operations officer for MetroTek Energy Services, Kunkletown.

Jaeckle and Eric Abershaus, MetroTek president, presented its renewable energy proposal to the Tamaqua Area Board of Education's finance committee Tuesday evening.

MetroTek, which was established in 1975, provides electrical construction services to meet the needs of its clients. Some of its clientele includes cement companies in the Lehigh Valley, Lentine Farms in Saylorsburg, Bayshire Recycling, Kraft Foods and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for which it built a meteorological tower for its auto marine terminal.

The firm came to the attention of the school district through Tamaqua Area facilities manager, Arthur Oakes Jr., according to Abershaus.

Jaeckle said MetroTek currently has a solar power project under construction for the Northampton School District and is also working with the Greater Nanticoke School District.

"For school districts, they have to have usable land with the availability of the property, as well as being willing to move forward with these types of projects," said Jaeckle.

Energy-wise, Tamaqua Area has moved toward the green side, environmentally speaking, with the installation of geothermal heating at its high school. The district is also moving toward geothermal systems for Tamaqua Elementary and potentially West Penn Elementary Schools.

MetroTek is proposing the installation of solar electrical grids, featuring 43-inch by 60-inch panels, on the district's property, in order to produce power to be used by the district, as well as other MetroTek customers.

The proposal even includes the possible installation of a wind turbine at Tamaqua Elementary, although MetroTek would need to do a wind study first to determine feasibility.

"Wind is a much greater energy generator, but not as reliable," said Jaeckle.

During the day, the solar grids overproduce energy, which can be drawn back for use by the district at night and during low sunlight days through a net meter, Jaeckle explained.

If the district would agree to the proposal, MetroTek would be responsible for the construction, which Jaeckle estimated at $26 million, as well as maintenance and security of its equipment. The system has a 35-year life expectancy.

"We can't just walk away from it, and we cannot let it fail, because we have an obligation to the district and our power customers," said Jaeckle.

Jaeckle calls the solar project "net zero" for the school district. That means the facility that MetroTek is providing energy for will not be billed for energy from another utility.

"The cost is contingent on a negotiated price," said Tamaqua board President Larry A. Wittig.

The project features guaranteed savings for the district, which Jaeckle said MetroTek backs with a performance bond. It is projecting a $5.2 million savings for Tamaqua Area, about 37 percent of its current energy bills, over the 20 years of the contract.

The district is currently paying 11 cents per kilowatt hour, which this proposal would reduce to about seven cents per kilowatt hour.

The solar project also makes budgeting easier for the district, since it will know its contracted energy costs in advance. It also offers protection if electrical costs would rise, stressed Jaeckle.

"The district agrees to use the power from the grid. They use the land, and we get the power and get it cheap," said Oakes. "We don't have to worry about the cost of energy, because it will be stipulated. If the power costs would go way down for some reason, they have to match it."

Oakes said one solar grid would be installed behind the high school practice fields, on about 11-13 acres, and that grid would provide power for the high and middle schools, the soccer complex, the stadium and administration building.

Another grid would be installed on a bank behind the Tamaqua Elementary practice field, as well as in the wooded diamond at Rush Elementary in Hometown and behind the school at West Penn.

Superintendent Carol Makuta said the district has asked the company to be sensitive with its West Penn placement site due to a residential development across the street from the school.

Jaeckle mentioned there is an educational portal with the project that includes a curriculum component for teachers and students. The online portal includes access to the performance numbers for each solar station through the district's WAM network. This component is made to be district-specific.

For now, MetroTek is looking for the district to sign a letter of intent. Makuta said district solicitor Jeffrey Bowe examined the agreement and insisted on the addition of specific language, which Abershaus said has been added at Bowe's request.

"We would respond to the letter of intent, and for a year, not deal with any other energy group while MetroTek does its study," said Makuta.

Oakes noted that MetroTek has spoken to Shayne Homan of McClure Company, Harrisburg, who is heading the district's geothermal project, and McClure has backed the MetroTek proposal. "They are all for it," he said.

The letter of intent could be on the agenda at the board's monthly meeting next Tuesday.