Energy committee moves forward with solar thermal school projects

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Stafford - posted Wed., Feb. 20, 2013
The solar thermal array at Stafford Middle School. Photo courtesy of Gary Fisher. - Contributed Photo

The all-volunteer Stafford Energy Advisory Committee has quite a few achievements under its belt, and an even longer to-do list.

Formed in March 2010 by now-Chairman Gary Fisher, a financial advisor, and Co-Chair Leonard Clark, a retired accountant, the group has grown to seven individuals, including Peter Kovaleski, P.E., an electrical engineer. With no budget or expense account, the committee’s sole mission is to acquire as much renewable energy as possible for the Town of Stafford for free or paid for through energy savings.

“Gary and I have been long-time friends, and he called me up a couple of years ago saying he wanted to start an energy committee for the town, and asking if I was interested in joining him,” said Clark. After getting the go-ahead from the first selectman, they ran an ad in the newspaper for volunteers, and Kovaleski came on board.

“It’s been my job to find the [energy-saving] programs the state offers and dissect them for their grant money,” said Fisher. Many of the programs, he said, are time-sensitive, and the committee had to act quickly to take advantage of grant opportunities.

To date, the committee has acquired three free solar arrays: two installed at the West Stafford Fire Department and one at the Stafford Public Library. The arrays were funded in part by the American Recovery and Investment Act through a Glastonbury solar firm. The three installations are currently saving the town about $5,180 a year in electricity costs.

The next big project the committee is tackling is the installation of solar thermal technology on each of the five schools in the district. Not to be confused with solar electric, which reduces electricity costs, solar thermal technology involves using the sun’s energy to create heat and make hot water, thereby cutting down on the town’s oil or gas expenditures. The project is expected to provide 60 to 70 percent of the schools’ hot water needs, and save an average of $23,488 per year. The installation has already been completed on Stafford Middle School.

Kovaleski said the solar thermal project’s estimated expense for the five schools is $166,674, of which $57,070 will be paid for through grants from the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority. The remaining net expense of $109,604 will be paid for through the savings to the town from not having to purchase as much oil for hot water needs.

“Solar thermal is basically just an insulated big box with copper tubes inside,” said Kovaleski. “When the sun heats it up, it gets hot inside, much like your car does when parked out in the heat. It then heats the water inside the tubing. There’s only one moving part, a small pump, and the rest is all passive, so there’s very little maintenance involved,” he said. Best of all, while the price of conventional fuels fluctuates with uncertainty, the renewable source from the sun remains a constant.

Getting the solar thermal project going involved some complicated coordination with the superintendent of schools, the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen, and the Board of Finance, but once approved, the installations can go quickly, taking only about a couple of weeks to complete each installation, Kovaleski said.

“We started the process last July or August and had the middle school up and running around the start of the school year. We expect all five schools to be complete by late summer,” said Clark.

Kovaleski said the town’s current fuel consumption for electricity, oil and propane is about $1.1 million a year, and their goal is to cut those costs by a third.

“It’s an attainable goal,” said Clark.

The SEAC typically meets the second and fourth Wednesdays at Town Hall, and it is looking to attract new members who are enthusiastic about energy savings. For more information, contact Gary Fisher at or Leonard Clark at, or attend a meeting.


Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles detailing energy and cost-saving measures undertaken by the Stafford Energy Advisory Committee.

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