The Franklin County Community School Corporation is always interested in improving its financial situation and a proposal presented to the board of trustees Jan. 10 may help in that regard over the next few decades.

A trio of SunFundED representatives were the only ones on a work session agenda meant to introduce the board to the solar concept. The company is based in Carmel and specializes in bringing complete solar solutions to education institutions.

Kelly Hipskind, a former Greensburg basketballer, founded the firm with friend and fellow entrepreneur Patrick Poer. Construction manager Tim Puckett was the third individual on hand.

Each has been in the education arena for years, Hipskind an executive with Herff Jones and founder of Kelly Touch Systems, which developed teacher evaluation software. Poer co-founded a company, Synovia, that tracks school buses for child safety purposes in over 1,500 school districts nationwide.
The duo was hitting their stride just as Covid hit in 2020. Even through that, their first product has now gone live in Portage, where that district has seen 50% savings the first six months. Taylor University and Indiana Wesleyan University are under contract and preliminary agreements have been secured with other universities. Many school systems (also in Michigan) have agreed to meet with the firm but FC would be the first traditional public-school contract, according to Hipskind.

Though solar is not new to Indiana schools, Hipskind said their model is the first in the state to create the high-level Solar as a Service (SaaS) program. SunFundED would develop, finance, construct and oversee operations of the solar farm(s), taking on most of the debt risk with a 25-year warranty/agreement.

The company would work on their own dime and time – including permitting, zoning, interconnection with utility, engineering – until COD or Commercial Operation Day and ribbon-cutting. Construction would cost approximately $2.9 million.

There is a measure of urgency for the board to decide, as state-mandated net metering falls away come July 1. This is a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for electricity added to a grid. An application needs to be filed with the state by July 1; the build would be about six months out, with the system possibly in place sometime during the 2022-23 school year. A notice to proceed is what the firm is hoping to secure.

Hipskind explained the state plans to move to something called instantaneous netting, a controversial billing cycle that favors the utilities over solar. In a brief entitled “The Green Mile” sent to legislators last week, SunFundED and Indiana Distributed Energy Alliance urged among other requests that net metering be extended to July 1, 2025. Citing loss of jobs and savings unique to solar, the brief asks for support and amendment of S.B. 248 and H.B. 1136.
As it stands now, though, the deadline is this summer's date. If a service agreement was signed, the firm would need another six weeks to complete the application. Duke Energy, schools' utility, would take about two to eight weeks to review and make sure all state guidelines were met. Poer didn't anticipate any trouble with approval but in the rare case the application was denied, the company would support FCCSC in filing a formal complaint with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. This could delay the project another year.

There are three stages to the project: pre-qualification, qualification and development. FC is currently in the middle bucket as credit has been approved and preliminary meetings held.

The solar plot would be a limit of six acres with one megawatt AC (alternating current) power generated. Another stipulation is it must be on school-owned property or contiguous. There's also a 1.5% cap on the amount of net metering offered.

The panels, rotating and approximately 11 feet high, could be fenced in or covered to an extent for optical reasons. The firm is looking at either a spot between the schools on the main campus off Wildcat Drive, or up the hill to the southeast on FCCSC-owned property. Sites at Mt. Carmel and Laurel elementaries are a possibility as well, though at Mt. Carmel some geothermal and septic installations make it more difficult.

FC schools would pay based on a flat fixed service fee structure - to SunFundED monthly for the production. Board trustee Grant Reeves asked how rates were figured into the financial model, assuming future inflationary price increases. The figure is a 4.5% increase per year, conservative per Hipskind as Indiana rates have gone up as much as 6%. Savings would likely be seen in year one and increase as inflation is mitigated.

The Carmel firm clarified more than once that they will guarantee the solar production but will not guarantee savings to the school corporation. They had considered past usage figures and previous payments to Duke but said it would be up to FCCSC to monitor their consumption, like heavy usage during winter months.

Estimated savings over the life of the 25-year deal were given as $5 million, or even up to $10 million from 30-50 years. This would be for all five buildings; the savings amount for Laurel and Mt. Carmel would be approximately $1.7 million (Brookville sites - $3.5 million). Considering degradation, the panels will operate at around 85% efficiency by the end of the term.

Solar companies have a slight built-in competitive advantage due to their energy being produced cheaper than energy provided by a utility. Their methods of revenue would be the schools' monthly payments and federal tax credits that amount to 26% of the project's value. The developer's fee for bringing the project live is tax-deductible to the firm. Hipskind added that, as a tax-exempt organization, FCCSC could not take advantage of those same government credits.

Zoning for the project is expected to fall in the “intermediate” category and SunFundED sees no complications arising there.

Trustee Kati Holman said she was impressed by the information presented. President Rick Gill said $5 million in savings was “meaningful.”

A clean contract was to be presented to superintendent Tammy Chavis for review by the entire board. The corporation has retained Church, Church, Hittle & Antrim for negotiations.