Across the Nation for schools are the results, the solar Savings Math

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Psomas FMG school project
Solar photovoltaic panels going up at a Southern California school site.

By Michael Balchunas

Published Dec. 14, 2010
Updated Dec. 15, 2010

When they do the arithmetic, many school officials across the country have been finding that solar electricity pencils out as a good buy.

Photovoltaic systems have been going up at an accelerating pace at elementary and secondary schools since 2009.

William J. (Pete) Knight High School, Palmdale
A worker installs lighting under a
photovoltaic array at William J. “Pete”
Knight High School in Palmdale, Calif.

“It’s a financial advantage,” said Paul Mikos, executive vice president of Psomas FMG, a California-based company that finances, installs and manages solar projects, with a focus on local governments. “Schools have very high energy costs, and most are trying to lower them. With solar power, it attacks a part of the budget that is high, with the potential for a financial home run for school districts.”

Saving money is one motive, but school officials also recognize the environmental and educational aspects of solar projects. It’s common for today’s solar PV systems to include elaborate charts and graphs detailing energy production, generating data that can be used in classrooms.

“Very rarely is a school district presented with an opportunity to save millions of dollars in energy costs, implement a new curriculum and substantially reduce its carbon footprint,” wrote Gwen Gross, superintendent of schools in Irvine, Calif., in a district newsletter after the school board voted a year ago to install solar. The school system’s math and science coordinator was one of the principal advocates.

Irvine school system officials expect to save $8 million over the next 20 years on electricity costs by installing solar PV systems at about 20 school district sites. The school system’s partners are SPG Solar and SunEdison.

In San Diego, the school board voted last summer to add solar at 20 more schools and other sites, in addition to the 28 that already had solar arrays. When the work is completed, the San Diego Unified School District will have a total solar generating capacity of about 9.4 megawatts. That capacity is equal to about 1,900 average residential solar electric systems in California.

These new
solar systems
will not only
create jobs
and help
these schools
reduce their
utility bills,
but the entire
process – from
to monitoring
the energy and
cost savings – will
serve as an
educational tool
for both students
and teachers.

Bill Richardson
New Mexico governor

In many cases, school systems are using power purchase agreements to plug into the sun with no upfront expense. These agreements, typically lasting about 20 years – well within the range of most solar module energy production warranties – stipulate in advance the electricity price to be paid.

“The structure of this partnership ensures that the district saves money with no taxpayer investment required, while at the same time bringing clean, renewable solar power to 20 sites and 80 rooftops throughout San Diego,” said Joshua Weinstein, managing partner of Amsolar Corp., in a news release when the project was announced. “That means the district will save money on its energy costs from the day the system is placed in service, providing immediate relief at a time when funds are scarce.”

In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. secretary of energy, announced last summer that $4.5 million in federal stimulus funding would be made available to 15 school districts for the installation of solar photovoltaic systems.

“These new solar systems will not only create jobs and help these schools reduce their utility bills, but the entire process – from installation to monitoring the energy and cost savings – will serve as an invaluable educational tool for both students and teachers,” Mr. Richardson said in a prepared statement. “We want these projects to inspire students to pursue education and jobs in New Mexico’s emerging green economy.”

One school in each of 15 New Mexico districts was chosen to receive a 50-kilowatt solar PV system. The funding works out to $6 per watt for the solar projects. One of the projects, at Belen High School, was inaugurated Tuesday. Consolidated Solar Technologies installed Schott Solar modules on the school. Schott employs about 300 people at a plant in Albuquerque.

“It’s a winning formula for utilizing New Mexico’s abundant sunshine to create both clean energy and local jobs,” said Tom Hecht, president and chief sales officer of Schott Solar PV Inc.

In August, the Arizona public utility SRP announced the start of a pilot program in which public schools in its service area can buy electricity from a solar photovoltaic power plant to be built in 2011.

Under the program, called SRP Community Solar, school districts will purchase a portion of the output from the solar facility for a fixed price of 9.9 cents per kilowatt-hour for 10 years. Eighteen megawatts of energy will be allocated to the program, and each school’s share of the solar plant will be individually metered.

The advantages to the program, SRP said in a news release, are that schools can invest in solar energy without the upfront costs of purchasing and installing solar panels and will not incur any maintenance or repair costs. In addition, the kilowatt-hour cost for the energy produced by the solar system is locked in for 10 years. If the cost of conventional electricity increases, the energy purchased through SRP Community Solar will remain the same.

“The incentive of investing in solar energy without incurring the initial costs of installing photovoltaic systems on our buildings is appealing to a district like ours,” said Robert Nickerson, director of facilities for the Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix, when the program was announced. “We will be looking into the program to see if it works for us.”

Participating school districts will also receive access to solar educational materials and a web portal, which will provide data on the plant’s operation and performance. The information will allow students to learn about the benefits of solar energy and how using the sun to generate electricity is one of many renewable energy sources for the future.

Irvine School District building
Irvine school system officials expect to save
$8 million over the next 20 years on
electricity costs by installing solar PV
systems at about 20 school district sites.

Arizona earlier this year allotted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for solar PV systems at 21 small, rural school districts. Gov. Janice Brewer directed that $5 million in one-time energy grants be provided to the state’s School Facilities Board for solar photovoltaic projects.

In a different Arizona project, Kinney Construction Services Inc. and Kyocera Solar Inc. announced the completion Monday of a solar electric system at Sedona Red Rock High School, using 3,838 of Kyocera’s multicrystalline solar panels.

The 806-kilowatt system is part of the Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District Alternative Energy Project, an effort to significantly reduce utility expenses while preserving the environment by installing photovoltaic systems, a solar hot water heating system, and geothermal technologies.

A monitoring system is included with the system to show students exactly how much power is being produced in real time.

“The educational component for the students is going to be really intriguing,” said Mike Thomas, project manager for Kinney Construction Services. “Students will be able to compare different types of photovoltaic systems, including thin-film and multicrystalline technologies, and see the difference in electricity production of fixed versus tracking solar arrays.”

In Woodbridge Township, N.J., voters on Tuesday approved a $32.5 million project to repair roofs and install solar electric systems on at least 21 of the township’s 24 schools. The final count was reported to be 2,828 in favor and 1,103 opposed. In a presentation for voters, the district reported that it spent more than $1.3 million annually for electricity and could reduce its costs with solar. Annual tax bills will rise an average of less than $7 per household, the school board reported. The project will include educational software and kiosks at each school to track solar production. The capacity will total 3.32 megawatts and all 24 schools will benefit because the savings can be used for academic programs, the board advised voters.

New Jersey is the second-leading solar state in production capacity installed, behind California. The New Jersey legislature this year has been considering a bill that would require new school facilities to incorporate solar panels. The measure remains under consideration in Assembly and Senate committees.

The Assembly’s Education Committee endorsed the bill in the fall, saying in a statement to the Assembly that “Generating electricity through solar panels is good for the community and the environment. The use of solar power means less consumption of fossil fuels, reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from local power plants. A solar power system can also reduce or eliminate a school building’s electric bill. Installing a solar power system is equivalent to prepaying for 40 years of power at a fraction of the current cost. As energy rates increase this difference will only increase, leading to escalating savings for the school district over the life of the system.”

A minority statement by opponents said that the idea was commendable but that solar may not be feasible at all schools and the immediate cost could be prohibitive in the existing economic climate.

The solar impetus hasn’t always come from boards or superintendents. In Southern California’s Conejo Valley, north of Los Angeles, a group called Students for Solar Schools has advocated for photovoltaic installations.

Young people
want and expect
better air quality
and reduced carbon
emissions, and
in California,
solar is the
best way to

Paul Mikos
vice president,
Psomas FMG

“The idea of Green Schools has been relatively ignored by most state and federal proposals, that is why it is up to the students to create the change they seek,” the group’s website says, describing its initiative as “a purely student-run campaign to unite student leaders and campus environmental groups with the common goal of advocating for solar panels on schools. SSS works towards getting solar panels on school campuses for the immense environmental, economic, and educational benefits. Additionally, solar panels are a powerful symbol for environmental conservation. Their inspirational potential needs to be utilized to catalyze less glamorous efficiency improvements at schools and attract greater publicity to the importance of school sustainability.”

School districts in many states now have solar installations on limited numbers of buildings or other sites, but California school systems have recently been turning toward solar on a large scale, with multi-megawatt installations.

The Mount Diablo Unified School District in the East San Francisco Bay Area and SunPower Corp. recently announced a contract award for SunPower to design, install and maintain solar power systems at 51 schools, totaling 11.2 megawatts of solar capacity. This is the largest contract issued to install solar by a school district in the United States, and is expected to save the district $192 million over the 30-year life of the systems.

“Motivated by the promise of significant cost savings, the Mount Diablo Unified School District began investigating solar energy over 18 months ago,” said school board Vice President Gary Eberhart in last week’s announcement. “We are very excited to team with SunPower to bring the largest K-12 solar project in the country to fruition. We are delivering substantial savings to our general fund, which will preserve financial resources and help our schools maintain an emphasis on academic performance. Saving our schools’ money, while reducing emissions, is the right thing to do for our students and the environment.”

The Mount Diablo installations are to be completed in phases through early 2012 as shade structures installed in school parking lots and hard court areas. The systems will be financed through Clean Renewable Energy Bonds obtained by the district under the Recovery Act. CREBs are beneficial to local school districts because federal government backing reduces the interest. The interest rate to be paid by the district is about 1.7 percent.

The Los Angeles Unified School District and others also are planning major solar projects.

“California of all the states has the greatest opportunity to build solar,” said Mr. Mikos of Psomas FMG. “There’s a mandate here in California that agencies have to reduce their carbon footprint. I think there’s a bright future. Young people want and expect better air quality and reduced carbon emissions, and in California, solar is the best way to accomplish that.”

Psomas FMG is installing nearly 6 megawatts of solar PV systems in the Palmdale School District in northern Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley under a 20-year power purchase agreement. The $30 million project is expected to save the district $25 million during the contract duration. The company also has a PPA with the Antelope Valley Union High School District for installations totaling about 9.6 megawatts, which are nearly complete and are expected to cover as much as 80 percent of the district’s electricity needs. It is using Trina Solar monocrystalline modules.

“The Antelope Valley is one of the best areas in California for solar,” said Paul Mikos of Psomas FMG. Above, a subdivision in Palmdale is awash in sunlight.  

“One of the great things about the installations in the Antelope Valley is that the students are excited about what we’re doing,” Mr. Mikos said. “The school district has been incorporating solar information into the curriculum and the students have been talking on Facebook and Twitter about the projects going up in their schools.

“Of course, the Antelope Valley is one of the best areas in California for solar – the irradiance is just spectacular,” he added. The school projects are primarily parking-lot installations that also offer shade. “With the parking-lot installations, you can see the structures going up. It dramatically changes the look of the schools, I think in a very positive way,” he said.

The firm Psomas Engineering has worked on thousands of public agency projects involving water, transportation, site development, energy and more. Mr. Mikos, a principal of First Management Group, a company that assists local governments in financing and managing solar and other energy projects, met Timothy Psomas as a fellow member of the Board of Trustees of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Psomas FMG was established as a joint venture.

Although the federal government has authorized billions of dollars for bonding programs to help local governments and schools finance solar photovoltaic installations, such as the CREBs financing used by the Mount Diablo district, the financial straits that many public agencies are in, the economic downturn and the political climate have made bonding a less common choice. Power purchase agreements have been a preferred approach for many school systems and are commonly used for commercial and residential projects as well.

“We have had discussions with school districts on all aspects of financing,” Mr. Mikos said. “In most cases, they do not want to spend money up front. Our model is, with no capital expenditure up front, you can get immediate savings.”

Third-party financing allows use of the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar PV installations, plus state, utility or local incentives where available, permitting developers to offer attractively priced long-term energy deals to school system officials. Although the federal tax credit is in effect until the end of 2016, state or utility incentives in many places have been declining, as planned, as more solar capacity is installed.

Dwindling incentives available through programs such as the California Solar Initiative mean that in planning new solar projects, “all of us are going to have to figure out how to build them better and faster,” said Mr. Mikos.

During the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, solar is making a difference.

“The Antelope Valley has been an area very hard-hit by the economy, with high unemployment and a lot of foreclosures,” he said. “It has been a pleasure to be able to give them the tools to help save money on energy and for our company to be involved out there.”

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