Sunshine Academy was founded by Ann and Andrew Haber. As new parents, they moved to Brookline, MA for the excellent K-12 programs. With their own young children in mind, they sought to extend that standard of excellence to early childhood education. They started their first school in 2006, expanded to a new school location in Coolidge Corner in 2009 and due to enrollment demands, expanded again to Washington Square in 2012. All schools are located in Brookline, Massachusetts and all three have received NAEYC Accreditation.
The Haber’s had always been interested in reducing their fossil fuel use and decided that the Washington Square location might be a good site for solar. Their first step was to talk with a solar panel provider to see if the building would be a candidate for solar panels on the roof. The provider said that they had a reasonably-size flat roof and no big buildings or large trees to obscure the sun, so the answer was yes.
Exploring Generating Electricity with Solar Panels
But the Haber’s didn’t own the building; rather they had a 20-year lease, with 15 years remaining. They approached their landlord with a proposal for installing solar panels, which Sunshine Academy would pay for. The landlord was, not surprisingly, originally reluctant. He wanted to ensure that the installation would not damage the roof in any way. To meet his concerns, Sunshine made an agreement that if there was damage to the roof caused by the solar installation, Sunshine would be liable for the costs (though the landlord would still be responsible for regular wear and tear). To begin, Sunshine paid for a structural engineer to determine if the roof would hold the weight and the solar installer helped with designing an appropriate installation. What sold the landlord? The entire array of panels would not require a single hole in the roof – it would be built with what’s called a ballasted system with metal rails and sandbags on the rails to weigh them down. The solar panels then simply snap into the rails like Legos.
Sunshine examined the costs involved and the time that would be needed to pay back their investment. Some points they considered:
- The lifecycle of the panels is, potentially, forever. They are warrantied for 10 years.
- There are no mechanical parts – it is all solid state.
- They wanted to use every inch possible on the roof, but there were existing mechanicals for heat and air conditioning, which took up some of the space as well as several skylights which let natural light into the school. The plan resulted in 110 panels.
- They worked with SolarFlair Energy and received a quote for about $110,000 for purchasing the system outright.
- They then figured the payback period. They estimated getting revenue back through reduced electricity bills (which could go from around $1,200/month to $0) and also by being part of the state’s SREC2 system. This would pay them quarterly based on how much electricity they put back into the grid. They would also get a tax break and could write off about 30% as a tax deduction the year they installed the panels.
Finalizing the Agreement with the Landlord
Sunshine worked with their landlord to write an addendum to their lease which would cover the solar panels. The addendum included several points:
- Sunshine would take on liability for the roof, as explained earlier.
- Sunshine agreed that if the landlord wanted to replace the roof in the next ten years, Sunshine would take down the entire system and replace it when the roof was finished. The quote from SolarFlair for this work was $4,000 – $5,000.
- At the end of their lease and if they did not renew, Sunshine would agree to remove the solar panels or to sell the system to the landlord for $1.00, potentially as an incentive for the next tenant.
How Has It Worked Out?
Much of the time, electricity from the solar panels meets 100% of Sunshine Academy’s needs. When we spoke in October, Haber said that he hadn’t paid an electric bill since the previous March. As we get into the winter months, however, there can be a small bill.
With the SREC-2 agreements from the state, Sunshine puts electricity back into the grid during most months. Their installation is directly connected to the grid and they worked with EverSource to install net metering. This has resulted in payments to them of about $2,500-$3,000 each quarter, so they are earning around $10,000 – 12,000 each year. Complete payback will take slightly more than 4 years; after that, Sunshine will be generating income free and clear.
Their landlord is happy with the installation and is now considering whether this success could be replicated on his other buildings in town. And Sunshine Academy is investigating whether their other two locations could have a similar installation.
Other Energy-Saving Steps
Sunshine Academy used the MassSave program to perform an energy audit and make recommendations. They’ve since taken a number of steps:
- For their HVAC systems, they installed smart thermostats and variable speed fans. They have three big, commercial units which were previously turned on all at the same time, causing a spike in electricity usage. And they were also either “on” or “off.” Now they have tied the three units together and have a controller that ensures the load is staggered so that peak energy will stay below a certain number. For example, one fan may go on at 6:00 am at “high”; at 6:30 that unit’s speed is reduced to “low” and a second unit is turned on; at 7:00 the third unit is turned on. In addition, Haber can log in remotely to see the status of the building.
- They have replaced all lighting with LEDs.
- They purchase only recycled products whenever possible. Paper plates are recyclable; all flatware is compostable.
- All food is served family style with no individually-wrapped meals or snacks. They use a caterer who provides allergen-free meals, vegetarian meals, gluten-free food, and everything is nut-free. Using the caterer means they do not need to have a full kitchen.
- For next year they are planning to get rid of single use flatware and recyclable paper plates. To do so, they recently had their dishwasher approved by the Health Department (it has a “sanitize” cycle which gets the water hot enough) so they will now be able to buy reusable stuff that can be washed in the dishwasher.
- They gave up bottled water about 6 years ago; instead they put out pitchers with tap water.
- They provide all employees free monthly T passes to those who agree not to drive to work.
Andrew Haber had this to say of his organization’s impressive actions:
“Especially because we’re an organization focused on the success of future generations, it’s been really meaningful to us to engage with sustainability as much as we can. Learning that Sunshine Academy can actually save money by investing in environmentally friendly practices means that we can have more resources to invest back in the children. It’s been an inspiring process.”