The Tamaqua Area School District continues to explore its options regarding the use of solar power.

On Tuesday evening the district's board of education heard a presentation from Reading Electric Renewables regarding the installation of solar panels on district property.

According to the proposal Reading Electric Renewables and its partner firm, SMX Capital Inc., which is the east coach branch of Solar Max, would install and maintain the panels on district property at their cost, in exchange for Tamaqua Area purchasing the energy produced at a fixed rate.

In January the school board heard a solar proposal from MetroTek Energy Services, Kunkletown, that offered to save the district $5.2 million on its energy costs over the next 20 years.

The Reading Electric Renewables proposal would install the solar electric grids on district properties at the high-middle school grounds, as well as its three elementary schools, with a savings of $6.4 million over 20 years.

Additionally, the district would take over ownership of the solar grid equipment in year 21, at which point it would assume maintenance costs but would no longer be paying bills for the power purchase agreement.

Rich Rogers, solar energy consultant, said that the 3.3 MW solar system would produce approximately 3,795,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity during its first year of operation.

The power purchase agreement proposes that SMX Capital provides the capital required for the projects and will work with Reading Energy Renewables to design, purchase equipment and install the solar panels at the district's four locations. That cost is estimated between $13-$15 million, said Rogers.

SMX Capital would be responsible for operations and maintenance of the solar systems over the course of the agreement.

For its investment, SMX Capital is offering the district an energy rate of 6.5 cent per kilowatt hour, with an annual escalator of two percent over a 20-year period of time.

At the end of the 20-year agreement the company would donate the array, valued at 20 percent of its original cost, to the district.

Reading Energy Renewables performed a preliminary site evaluation of the facilities, looking at the electric meters available at each location, electric tie-ins, and roof and ground areas suitable for a solar array.

The Tamaqua Area High-Middle School campus would use a 1.35 MW system on six acres on the mountain behind the schools. Rush Elementary would use a 190 kW system, West Penn Elementary a 370 kW system and Tamaqua Elementary School a 1.39 MW system, said Rogers.

Through the use of virtual net metering, the power produced by the solar grids can be used within a radius of two miles.

Board Vice President Dr. Thomas Rottet asked what happens with the system in the winter, when the solar panels become covered with snow.

"It's light that makes electricity, it's not heat," said Rogers. "Solar rays can shine and still produce electricity through snow." Rogers did admit that a heavy freeze of 3-4 days might prevent electric production during those days.

Installing the grids at Rush Elementary could require taking down some trees, as is the case with West Penn. Superintendent Carol Makuta said Rush Elementary's roof could be used as a last resort but would require extra preparation.

There would be times during the year when the system would overproduce power, but the district would not get credit for that energy, noted Rogers. That power would go back into the grid.

Board Secretary Robert W. Betz asked if the district's solar systems could be used to power buildings in the borough of Tamaqua as well.

"We're not interested in making money with that but might be in helping out the library and churches all within the two miles," said Betz. Rogers said he could look into information about providing solar power to different buildings within town.

The district does have a contract with Exelon to buy energy that runs through June of 2013, which would have to be factored into the proposal and might cause Reading Electric Renewables to rework its numbers for the first two years, noted Rogers.

Beginning with year 21, when the district would take ownership of the grids, estimated maintenance costs would be between $64,000 and $81,000 for year 30.

Board President Larry A. Wittig said he didn't know if he could lock the district into the two percent escalator with the electric rates.

"Twenty years from now, you will stay pay less than you are paying now," said Rogers.

If the districts executes a letter of intent to proceed with the project, Rogers said construction could take about three months, with at least five percent to be completed by December, 2011.