By DUSTIN RACIOPPIhot-topic right

Middletown has wrapped up a months-long town-wide study pinpointing locations ideal for solar panels, and may soon bring on a contractor to start the process of getting off the grid.

If it does, the town could save taxpayers $6.6 million over the next 15 years — and perhaps double that, if the town board of education gets on board, officials said.

Eatontown-based Birdsall Services Group, after months of review, has targeted nine locations at which to install solar panels throughout town.

On the list: Middletown Arts Center; Tonya Keller Community Center; Department of Public Works; New Monmouth Library; the Croydon Complex; the sewer authority; the old train station; the new train station; and the Kings Highway complex.

“The next step is for the committee to review the report with the consultant, then move forward with request for proposals to bring on a contractor to start,” Committeeman Kevin Settembrino said.

If the town follows through, Settembrino said it would save the town $400,000 in “real cash” a year, based on current energy rates. And that, Mayor Tony Fiore added, “with very little, if any, capital outlay for the implementation is a win-win for us.”

The savings could double, he said, if the school board joins in and solar panels are installed at school-owned properties. The township committee is “working diligently” with the school board to join the program, but so far there’s been more foot-dragging than serious discussion of the school system getting involved, Fiore said.

“At this point I don’t know if they’ll be part of it,” he said. “The township can’t wait forever.”

Going with a private contractor may not be a done deal, though.

If the town can enter a power-purchasing agreement with Monmouth County that provides more savings, the town may go that way, Settembrino said.

“Whatever the greater savings is to the township and the board of education will be the path that the town selects, bar none,” he said.

But time is of the essence, Fiore said, making the chances higher that the town will go with a private company to install the panels and provide solar power.

“We’re looking to wrap this whole thing up in the fall to achieve these savings in 2012,” he said.