Feeling the Heat
Under pressure to cut energy costs, administrators will find solar power a less expensive and more efficient option than ever.
A few years ago, when the Irvine Unified School District was trying to get a handle on sky-high energy spending, it looked to the sun, which is virtually always in view given the district’s locale: Orange County, CA.
Flash forward to 2010, and Irvine USD is in the midst of implementing what it says is the most comprehensive K-12 solar energy initiative of any school district in the country. But that’s a claim it isn’t likely to be able to make for long, as other districts discover solar power’s financial, environmental, and educational benefits.
Like businesses and individuals, school districts are having to address rising energy costs. In a 2009 survey of districts by Honeywell Building Solutions, two-thirds of respondents reported cutting spending or modifying their budgets because of increased energy bills. About one-fourth said they have set goals to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, yet few have taken the necessary steps in that direction, even though the installation of photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight into electricity, is easier and more worthwhile than ever, as technological advances have enabled solar panels to convert a higher percentage of the sunlight they absorb into electricity.
“The technology and financing are there,” says Irvine USD board member Michael Parham. “It’s a no-brainer.”
For Irvine, modernizing was the catalyst to going solar. “The school district has been living in the Dark Ages in terms of efficiency,” Parham says, blaming “inept billing” from the district’s utility. “We don’t know what our usage per site is and what rates we are being charged until several months after the fact, so we can’t make any changes until it is way too late to correct.”
Looking to upgrade, the district wanted to show a commitment to conservation. “We wanted to do something more significant than recycling cans and cardboard,” Parham says. Initially, the district considered adopting solar power at just one school, as it was weighing its options the federal government began rolling out incentives for renewable-energy projects, including tax credits.
As a public school district, Irvine is not eligible for tax credits, but the federal incentives have made renewable energy enticing to investors. Through a mechanism called a Power Purchase Agreement, a financing entity—SunEdison, in Irvine’s case—funds, owns, and maintains a solar energy system. A customer then purchases its power from that entity for less than it would have to pay a local utility. In addition to selling the power, the provider is able to take advantage of any applicable federal, state, and local tax rewards.
Three Steps to Going Solar
If you’re thinking about adopting solar power, you must first confirm you’re on a site that has enough sunlight to be viable, according to Tom Rooney, CEO of California-based solar installer SPG Solar (spgsolar.com). After you’ve made that determination, Rooney identifies three steps you’ll have to go through with your chosen provider:
1) Look at economic modeling, which includes assessing power bills, utility rate structures, available incentives, and taxable offsets.
2) Determine which financing options make the most sense, whether a Power Purchase Agreement, a pay-as-you-go solar lease, or an outright purchase.
3) Choose the technology, such as a roof-mounted or ground system, that best suits the site. “A roof can be a very easy place to hide a solar system,” Rooney says. “Just about every school has one, and most will work. That said, some are shaded, some are too small, some are all broken up with vents, pipes, and skylights, and some are too flimsy to support a solar array. Ground-mounted systems can be very good for schools with open land, and they are very cost-effective. And precisely because of their visibility, they enable the school to use the system for high-impact, real-time teaching opportunities.”
Rooney says that once those decisions are squared away, design, permitting and inspection, and installation each typically take one to two months to complete.
The Power Purchase Agreement option was a good fit, Parham says, because it allowed his district to pursue a larger project—and one that would generate bigger cuts in costs and greenhouse gas emissions—while freeing it from maintenance responsibilities, which are handled by SunEdison.
Irvine’s adopted plan includes installing solar energy systems on 21 of its school and administrative facilities. The project is expected to generate more than 6.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, representing about 45 percent of the sites’ energy use. According to SPG Solar, a northern California-based solar installer hired by Irvine, the district’s electricity costs could drop by about 10 percent, saving more than $17 million over 20 years. Meanwhile, the new systems would keep 127 million pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere over the next two decades, which is equivalent to taking 12,000 cars off the road annually over the same time span.
Taking power from the sun also will help stabilize energy costs, which will no longer fluctuate according to time-of-usage charges set by a utility. “We need greater confidence in our budgets,” Parham says.
In general, Power Purchase Agreements are good options for public schools, says Gary Gerber, president of Berkeley, CA-based Sun Light & Power. For private schools, which often can take advantage of tax credits, other alternatives may make more sense, Gerber says, including a financing option called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) that allows customers to pay for a solar energy system over time, typically 20 years, through an assessment on their property tax bill.
Gerber’s company has installed solar-powered systems in schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, including The Branson School, a private high school that opted to pay for the installation outright. “Private schools are pretty much like other businesses,” Gerber says. “They have the same [tax] incentives that other businesses have.”
The Branson School went solar last year as part of a larger project. “We were designing three new buildings on campus,” says Andy Pauley, director of finance and operations.
The school targeted one of the buildings, a 7,500-square-foot student commons, for certification from the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design program. LEED certification indicates a structure has met green building standards in a range of areas, so solar panels naturally became a key design element.
Sun Light & Power installed a 31- kilowatt system, which is expected to meet about 65 percent of the building’s energy needs. Meanwhile, on the roof of an existing campus building, the company installed a 60-kilowatt system to power the school’s science lab. Pauley says that adopting solar energy was a “relatively easy” component of the new building’s construction. Sun Light & Power handled all of the paperwork involved with securing the tax rebates.
Once a solar energy system is up and running, schools can tap into another benefit: its instructional value. “The additional education function, it’s hard to figure out what that’s worth,” Gerber says.
A considerable amount, of course. An interactive, touchscreen computer monitor displaying a feed of the new energy system’s activity has been placed in the lobby of the campus’s science center. And Branson staff is at work writing a science curriculum it plans to introduce in the next school year.
Irvine USD is also developing a curriculum that will make use of its solar installations. Initial lessons will likely involve a survey of different types of energy, including solar and wind, says Mark Sontag, the district’s math and science curriculum coordinator. “We plan on each school having a sample solar panel identical to the ones we are installing,” Sontag says, “with an output meter so students can investigate different factors on energy production: complete shading, partial shading, angle relative to the sun, etc.”
Just as at The Branson School, Irvine students will monitor in real time the new system’s performance, through a tool offered at SunEdison’s website called Client Connect. The portal allows students to view information, updated every 15 minutes, on solar energy production, energy costs, load offsets, and environmental impact, such as the volume of pollutants avoided and what that amounts to in terms of cars taken off the road or homes powered.
Bringing solar projects into the classroom has another tangible benefit: It gets students acquainted with the renewable sector, which is projected to be a key source of future jobs. A 2008 study by Navigant Consulting anticipates that the solar energy industry will create more than 400,000 permanent jobs by 2016. “Our job is to educate students for the future,” Parham says, “and this is the future.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of THE Journal.
Sara Stroud is a freelance writer based in Oakland, CA.