Solar Builder Project of The Year Winner: Fort Madison Middle School

Fort Madison Middle School

Category: Roof-Mount

Fort Madison, Iowa | 300 kW

Property-Reuse-(2)

The landmark 1922 Fort Madison Middle School nearly wound up in an Iowa landfill, but thanks to the vision of developer Todd Schneider, and thanks to state-administered funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the apartment complex is a showcase of renewable energy.

Schneider had already remodeled a number of public schools in Iowa before the middle school fell into his hands. Sorely outdated for school use and empty since 2012, he transformed the three-story building into a 39-unit apartment complex, primarily featuring three-bedroom configurations.

roof mount winner“Designing green definitely helped finance the project because the CDBG is a competitive loan that is scored on a point system, so more points for our green design, including renewable energy, pushed us to the top of the pile,” Schneider says. “It was a one-time CDBG program involving new housing as part of flood relief. There were $124 million worth of applicants across the state, and only $12 million in funds to release, and we got $3 million. The total project cost was $5.5 million, with the remainder borrowed from a local bank. We’re also on track for some historical tax credits to pay down the notes.”

While the project is a for-profit venture, Schneider also retained the gymnasium and the auditorium, which may come to serve more public use. He said members of the class of 1960 have offered to contribute some funding to preserve it.

Since the block grant encouraged renewable energy use, the project was analyzed from a green viewpoint from the beginning. “We worked with an energy auditing company to get appropriate sizing of the PV system,” notes Troy Van Beek, the CEO of Ideal Energy, which planned and installed the 300-kW solar system. “We used lots of insulation.”

The apartments each have varying usage by design — some are gas, some are electric.

“We used gas on the lower level, and as the apartments rise, we used more electric,” Van Beek says. “The 100-kW carport supplies the third floor and part of the first floor. The 200 kW on the roof supplies part of the second and third floors. In the future, there will likely be an electric vehicle charging station in conjunction with the carport.”

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“Our calculations are that the solar will generate $58,000 to $70,000 worth of electricity per year, so after tax credits, we are looking at an 8.5-year payback,” Schneider says. “The rent includes utilities, but we discount their estimated bills by 20 percent.

Apart from the solar, the second and third floors use air-driven electric heat pumps, and all hot water heaters are electric heat pump driven.

The 200-kW array on the roof supplies part of the second and third floors of the building.

The 200-kW array on the roof supplies part of the second and third floors of the building.

Utility partnership helps The local utility, Alliant Energy, has net metering, so energy will be sold back in the summer and pulled more during the winter.

“It was a clear process working with the utility,” Van Beek notes.

Alliant has a progressive solar program, which includes a corporate renewable center. The utility built an energy learning lab at its Madison, Wis., general office with several types of solar structures, multiple electric vehicle charging stations and an energy battery storage system. This solar learning laboratory enables Alliant to discover the many ways solar energy and renewables can be used in a Wisconsin setting. For Alliant, one of its key projects will be a monitoring interface available onsite and online where anyone can view real-time performance data.
Ideal Energy sees potential for extrapolating lessons learned from this project to community solar projects elsewhere in the state.

“We’d love to do community solar; that’s how the utilities would like to see solar unfold,” Van Beek says. “Nothing has taken hold yet for community solar legislation, but we are doing everything we can politically to promote it; it’s going to happen, but it’s a process.”

In the meantime, Ideal Energy recently expanded its operational footprint to include Minnesota, along with existing Illinois and Iowa business.

“We have coordinated with SolarCity and groSolar and look to handle any size array,” he notes.

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer who covers solar energy from Northern California. Reach him at chazwt@gmail.com.