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San Diego schools lead by example with solar power systems

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They might not stand out to the casual observer, but solar panels and arrays have become more common at San Diego schools and are quickly becoming major sources of electricity to districts around the county.

Of the county’s 42 K-12 districts, seven are listed by the San Diego County Office of Education to have solar power on campus, either completed or in the planning stages. Not surprisingly, the district with the most solar-inclusive schools is the county’s largest district -- San Diego Unified -- with 28 schools currently drawing at least some power from the sun.

Though it will remain the district with the most solar power, San Diego Unified won’t hold the title when it comes to district penetration. That distinction will soon belong to Encinitas Union, with bonds already passed that will fund systems at seven of the nine district schools. However, according to the district superintendent’s office, the timeline for construction is not yet set. Of the 35 districts not listed with any solar power, 10 have indicated that it is included in future plans.

J. William Naish, SDUSD’s maintenance planning supervisor, said 50 additional schools are scheduled to have systems online within a year in his district. They will be funded, he said, through a purchase power agreement that will lower the district’s utility bills and involve no out-of-pocket expenses.

"We have been very aggressive in the solar installation process for several years,” Naish said.

The carport solar installation at the San Diego Community College District office in Mission Valley. Photo: Andrew Schweizer/Gafcon Inc.

SDUSD installed its first solar power system in 2003. Since then, the district has expanded the program to a point where it generates more than 4 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The scheduled projects are expected to more than triple that total, yielding an additional 9.4 MW.

According to the district, the 81 power-generating sites will provide nearly 30 percent of the district’s needs. Potential monetary savings are projected to exceed $50 million during the 20-year life of the systems.

Other K-12 districts in the county using solar include Alpine Union Elementary School District with two schools, Lemon Grove Elementary School District with three schools, Poway Unified with five, San Dieguito Union High School District with two and Santee Elementary School District with one.

Interest in solar power has piqued so much that the San Diego County Office of Education has developed a joint powers authority for county schools, from the K-12 level through the community colleges, to facilitate further development. Established last June, the San Diego County Energy Joint Powers Authority now has 16 member districts, all with the hope of expanding or starting renewable energy projects.

Jeffery Felix, superintendent of the Coronado Unified School District, said that although his district doesn’t have any specific plans at the time, it did join the EJPA.

Though not a member of the EJPA, the San Diego Community College District is the county’s higher education leader when it comes to solar projects funded through the California Solar Initiative, according to the California Center for Sustainable Energy. Of about 7.7 MW installed or pending installation through the CSI, SDCCD projects account for more than 30 percent.

The vertical solar array at the district’s Career Technology Center at City College boasts 350 panels on the south façade of the parking structure and roof. According to research reported from the district, it’s the largest vertical array of its kind in the country. It generates a projected 67,558 kilowatt-hours per year and earned the district a $105,517 rebate check from the California Solar Initiative.

“If you’ve driven northbound on the I-5 through the S-curve, you’ve seen it, whether you know it or not,” said Dave Umstot, vice chancellor of facilities management at SDCCD.

The district has also funded its projects through a combination of power purchase agreements and bond money from Propositions N and S.

With about 1 MW of production at both Miramar and Mesa Colleges, the district has reached the net-metering cap at the two schools that was set by the California Public Utilities Commission. Currently, each meter is capped to 1 MW, and each of the schools has a single meter that services nearly all the electrical load.

Umstot said that won’t stop them from installing more solar, just perhaps extend plans out beyond what was hoped. In preparation for good news down the line, the district has designed and oriented the newest classroom buildings at Miramar College to support additional solar panels.

Should that happen, it would make the district’s goals of continuing its leading efforts a whole lot easier, and on a larger scale, enable the district reach the state’s mandated goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

“The only way you’re going to do that is by getting some type of renewable power in place,” Umstot said. “You can only conserve so much.”

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