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Solar power in schools saves money, renews energy

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The first solar-powered school in the Poway district will open in August, with solar energy powering 50 percent to 60 percent of the school's electrical needs.

The solar photovoltaic system will lower electrical costs for the Monterey Ridge Elementary School by $30,000 to $40,000, said Doug Mann, director of facilities for Poway Unified School District.

The school is located on 4S Ranch Parkway, off Rancho Bernardo Road, and was designed by NTDStichler Architects in San Diego, and built by Temecula-based Edge Development Inc. Edge Development specializes in educational facilities, which make up 90 percent of their projects, said spokeswoman Jamie Goebel. They have worked with the Poway district on schools like Stone Ranch Elementary School, which is in the same community and opened in 2004.

Poway-based Gould Electric Inc., which did the electrical work for the school, has also often worked with the district in the past, said Bob Paeckens, Monterey Ridge's project manager. They worked on Stone Ranch as well. The company does more than $30 million in electrical work every year, with an array of projects that includes many educational facilities, Paeckens said.

The new school has room for 750 students, and totals 65,000 square feet and 10 acres. Construction on the $22-million project began in July 2005.

For now, the taxpayers are footing the bill, Mann said. The solar panel system cost $1.5 million to install, though they hope to receive a $600,000 rebate from the San Diego Regional Energy Office, he said. It will take the school 14 years to pay back the initial costs of the panels.

"[Taxpayers] will get their money back as we save in energy costs over the years," he said.

The panels are located on a hillside on the north side of the campus, cover 20,000 square feet and create about 200 kilowatts of electricity. They were installed by SPG Solar Inc.

The Lemon Grove School District, San Diego Unified School District and the Alpine Union School District also use solar energy as a source of power.

Lemon Grove installed solar panels at three existing schools in October 2005. The power from them provides about 95 percent of the schools' energy needs, said Richard Tighe, Lemon Grove's assistant superintendent for business services.

Lemon Grove has always tried to find uses for renewable energy, Tighe said, and has also been using buses and other vehicles powered by alternative fuels. The solar panels fit this goal.

"We've always wanted to harness the sun so we started looking at [using solar power], and got excited," he said. "The board was behind it and we made it happen."

The project cost over $4 million, though they received a grant from the San Diego Regional Energy Office that paid for about half of it, Tighe said. It will take about 15 years for the system to pay back the cost.

San Diego Unified's photovoltaic system has been installed at 19 district sites since the project was approved in late 2004.

"As a district, we were looking for something that would cause our utility bills to be more reliable and predictable," said J. William Naish, the district's energy utility coordinator.

They entered a public-private partnership with Solar Integrated Technologies and GE Commercial Finance Energy Financial Services, in which the private entities pay all the up-front and maintenance costs, while the district agrees to buy the solar power for the next 20 years.

The San Diego Unified system is located on rooftops, while Lemon Grove's and Poway's are on the ground. Since the panels double as roofs, the district doesn't have to pay for roof maintenance, Naish said.

The system saves the district $100,000 in electricity costs and $46,000 in avoided roofing maintenance costs every year.

San Diego Unified plans to install photovoltaic roofs at 24 more sites over the next two years. For now, Naish said, they have focused on the bigger schools that use more energy and have more roof space.

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