Sunday, June 13, 2010

School Districts Look to Solar Power to Cut Costs

Last Updated Sunday, Jun 13 2010 12:00 PM

School districts throughout Kern County are hoping to save thousands of dollars a year on energy costs by contracting with companies offering solar power.

The latest plan is coming out of Greenfield Union School District in south Bakersfield. The district hopes to have companies install solar panels on top of roofs of nearly all 11 campuses (Ollivier Middle School is excluded because of efficiency concerns).

Instead of paying PG&E for power, as it does now, the district would pay the solar power provider installing the panels directly under the plan. The move could save the district more than $50,000 a year, and $4.6 million after 20 years, Superintendent Chris Crawford said.

"We are really excited about this," Crawford said. "There are the savings, and it allows us to budget our power costs."

Greenfield trustees earlier in the week heard a presentation from Enfinity, a solar energy company of investors, and Garland Energy Systems, a solar panel provider and consulting resource.

Trustees have given Crawford the OK to draw up an action item school board members could vote on later this month. If approved, the panels would be installed at no cost to the district under the contract.

At the meeting, trustees asked how the panels would look, whether they would affect roof warranties and most importantly, how much the district could save. The district paid PG&E about $800,000 for energy the last 12 months, and hopes to save $56,000 the first year with the solar panels, Crawford said.

Saving money is a priority for schools county and statewide as they deal with unprecedented budget cuts. Greenfield is working with a $5.5 million budget reduction for next year.

Another local school district -- Standard School District -- has discussed options with Chevron, a company that makes up 75 percent of the district's tax base. The company would provide solar energy from its solar farms to the district, which has lost roughly $3.7 million since 2008.

"We're all looking for solutions because we're not getting solutions from Sacramento. You have to take matters into your own hands," said Superintendent Kevin Silberberg, who also shared that the district also added artificial turf at one of its elementary schools to cut landscaping costs. "Everyone is looking for creative ways to cut costs."

Adding solar panels to schools saves money, certainly, but it also stamps the school as "green conscious" and sustainable, officials said. School districts contract for solar panels instead of buying them partly because there is no incentive to the public agencies.

In Mojave, where the sun shines clear most of the year, school leaders at Mojave Unified are discussing solar options.

"We're doing our homework," Superintendent Larry Phelps said. "We want to be as green as we can, and we're trying to look at long-term costs."

Installing solar panels and attempts to cut energy costs at schools are nothing new; they're just becoming hotter with looming budget cuts, officials said.

Kern High School District is using an efficient air-chilling unit and motion sensors to shut off machines when not in use, according to previous Californian reports.

Schools throughout the Rosedale area recycle paper, and the money earned goes back to their schools. At Fruitvale School District, officials measured and tracked HVAC and lighting systems to save money.

At the 40-plus campuses in the Bakersfield City School District, temperatures are adjusted and automatic shutdown software was installed.

And at Bakersfield College, plans expected to be live as early as fall call for covering the northeast parking lot with solar panels, a project that will supply about a third of the campus's energy needs. A similar project is planned for Cal State Bakersfield.

Back at Greenfield, the district is looking at the plan as a way to catch a break from the ups and downs of power costs. If approved, the solar providers have 18 months to get panels installed.

"What it's doing is helping the school districts out in a really tough time," said Sean Gavin, with Garland Energy Systems' local office. "I think that's what this whole solar initiative is supposed to do."

PG&E, which loses out when districts change services, said representatives work with schools to cut costs. The company, however, supports customers' right to choose, said Cindy Pollard, PG&E spokeswoman.

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