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Five schools flip the switch

Original post made on Oct 25, 2011

San Ramon Valley Unified students and staff gathered with residents and various dignitaries on Monday afternoon to dedicate the district's solar project, which placed thousands of solar panels at five schools. The systems will produce approximately 3.3-megawatts of solar capacity and is expected to generate more than two-thirds of each school's energy needs.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, October 24, 2011, 8:10 PM

Comments (31)

Posted by George, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 25, 2011 at 6:56 am

A super example of visual pollution and an unbelievable waste of taxpayer money.


Posted by Steve Block, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 25, 2011 at 7:29 am

While I'm a big fan of solar, it's got to make financial sense. This solar project was financed by $25 million in low interest bonds. The school district gets a $7 million rebate from PG&E which means it costs the school district $18 million to save $20 million over 25 years, essentially a break-even project. I'm sure everyone feels good about this solar project and the examples it sets for the students and community, but are there really no better ways to invest $18 million in our schools where we could see a significant payback on taxpayers' investment?


Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville
on Oct 25, 2011 at 7:54 am

Once again, Danville Express delivers a one-sided story, ignoring opposing points of view.

Isn't it 5 1/2 times cheaper to get electricity from coal ($0.04 kWh) rather than solar ($0.22 kWh)? If so, how does this project save America money?

Granted, it may save SRVSD money, due to various federal and state loans and other programs, etc. But if you look at the big picture, does America as a whole save money when the government borrows money to fund programs like this?

California pays some of the highest electricity rates in the country due to restrictions imposed by California law. If we changed California law, increasing the supply of electricity from coal, wouldn't that save SRVSD much more than these solar panels?


Posted by CDSI Labz, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

Problem solved. Let's build shade-bearing double-decker coal-furnaces, and have the bad eggs from Del Amigo do it free to earn community service hours. See you folks in 1930s Alabama!


Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville
on Oct 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

CDSI,

I'm not advocating coal as a solution, only questioning why we keep deluding ourselves with the false claim that solar saves money.

It is more intellectually honest to admit that solar is more expensive than coal, but we prefer solar, as it is less environmentally harmful than coal and other alternatives.

We should also acknowledge that for at least the next century, solar energy will never displace enough fossil fuels to have a significant impact on climate change.


Posted by CDSI Research, a resident of another community
on Oct 25, 2011 at 11:16 am

Dear Editor,

As developers of solar and thermal technologies, our CDSI members question the application of such products in inappropriate environments. In reality an industrial solar power generation station does not belong in a residential neighborhood so the solar industry configures technology for installation on roofs and in discreet structures that do not impact the character of neighborhoods. Sunpower, as a subsidiary of a French Energy company, is now focused on appropriate rooftop installations in communities and neighborhoods.

Thus, SRVUSD celebration of massive, industrial solar power generation stations is best focused on the MVHS and SRVHS installations. At MVHS the massive station covers an unwanted large parking lot that together offends the character of surrounding neighborhoods. As SRVHS the roadside station has similar character to the Embarcadero Freeway appropriately long-gone from San Francisco.

Yes, we need successful solar power in our region and the value of reduced carbon emissions from various generation using fossil fuels, BUT we need suitable, available technology placed discreetly so the character of our communities and neighborhoods are maintained. In this SRVUSD result, we have demonstrated to our communities and students the misapplication of industrial technologies.

Hal/CDSI Research


Posted by Derek, a resident of Danville
on Oct 25, 2011 at 12:14 pm

@spcwt-

"Isn't it 5 1/2 times cheaper to get electricity from coal ($0.04 kWh) rather than solar ($0.22 kWh)?"

Actually, no, it isn't. Not when you factor in the lung disease over many decades and over a wide geographic area it isn't. Of course, if we change our health care system to the republican model where only the ultra-wealthy have access to it, then you might have a point.
This is a separate discussion from whether these solar projects were a boondoggle and I'll let the rest of you argue about that.


Posted by so_good, a resident of San Ramon
on Oct 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Thank you SRVUSD ... love such progressive thinking in a community increasingly populated by right-wing nuts.


Posted by Right Wing Nut?, a resident of Danville
on Oct 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Are the "right-wing nuts" you refer to those who voiced concerns over the liberals giant give away of our taxes to Solyandra, who took our money and ran to bankruptcy court, layiing off thousands of workers with no notice and no severence pay? Liberals believe if you use the catch phrase "green technology" it must be good, without actually taking a critical analysis of the technology. "Green" is not always good, just like "right wing nuts" are not always wrong.


Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville
on Oct 25, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Derek,

What about all the massive amounts of silicon tetrachloride and other toxic waste that is a by-product of manufacturing solar panels? And what about the toxic waste in the solar panels themselves, that are an environmental ticking time bomb when they must eventually be discarded?

Web Link

I mentioned coal merely to illustrate the price. But isn't it possible to locate new coal plants far away from population centers in order to minimize negative health effects?

Also, another electricity alternative is natural gas power plants, which emit virtually no toxic pollution and (at $0.10 kWh) costs less than half as much as solar.

In purchasing these solar panels, SRVSD supposedly acted in their best interest financially, but by taking advantage of government programs, all they did was shift some of their electricity cost to the already bankrupt federal and state governments. If you look at the big picture, isn't this financially irresponsible for America?

It would appear SRVSD's solar panels neither help the environment nor are they financially responsible.


Posted by rf, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 8:44 am

has anyone seen the permits for these installations. perhaps i missed thm but don't recall seeing them reported anywhere. watched the monte.being built which i beleive that is alamo never saw a county building inspector. i'm sure i missed it but the question when it went before the aia or county planning.


Posted by [clarification], a resident of Alamo
on Oct 26, 2011 at 9:37 am

Dear Editor,

SRVUSD is not subject to county approvals for their land use because it is a state-constituted district. As a result, the AIA was never invited to review or provided an opportunity for commentary on such violations of neighborhoods zoning by the MVHS parking lot and power station in Alamo.


Posted by Derek, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 9:53 am

spcwt-

There is no free lunch. These mercury laden CF bulbs are a prime example. Another is "should I buy a new Prius to replace an automobile that still runs relatively well and gets decent mileage, without considering the massive energy costs that go into producing the car's materials?" So I'm not entirely disagreeing with you, but all costs including the long range health care associated with dirty coal need to be considered.
What I do not understand well is the mystery of plasma arc gassification. An item once considered a great hope for cleanly incinerating any non-nuclear waste, the plasma torch now seems to have largely disappeared from discussions of toxic waste disposal. Perhaps they are too expensive to operate? I know they take a mighty power source, and again that spells some form of its own pollution. But if they can be operated with efficiency, then they offer a solution to a great many hazardous waste issues.


Posted by Greg, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 11:38 am

I am one of those school board members that approved the solar panels. I am astonished at the level of confusion and misinformation that is circulating out there. I would like to clarify exactly what we did and why we did it.

First, as a fiscal conservative, I am not about to approve any project that costs the District money, or leaves it on the hook for unfunded liabilities down the road. I was initially very concerned about the potential savings. I told staff that I would not vote for the solar projects unless it penciled out with a positive cash flow under the worst assumptions. It did!! The District is going to make money on these projects by reducing our future PG&E electricity bills by millions of dollars. Under the worst case scenario, with PG&E NOT raising rates for the next 20 years, we will make money. Assuming historical rate increases continue over the next 20 years, the District's savings skyrocket into the tens of millions of dollars (a more likely scenario).

Some say that the amount of electricity generated by solar panels cannot be guaranteed. Our contract with the companies involved guarantee that if output falls below 95% of what was guaranteed, they must write checks to the District to cover the difference.

Others complain that federal tax dollars were used to fund the project. True! However, the $25 million was not a gift, but a loan that we must pay back out of the savings from our reduced electrical costs.

Some have said that the $25 million could have been used to keep class sizes smaller or restore other program cuts during these tough financial times for school districts. Unfortunately, the money could not be spent for normal operational programs. It could only be spent on projects such as the solar panels.

Some have questioned the lack of planning and inspection oversight from Contra Costa County or the Town of Danville. School districts do not normally come under the authority of local government for planning purposes. We are under the authority of the California Office of the State Architect, which oversees all school construction projects.

In summary, the solar projects will make money for the District at no cost to the local, state or federal taxpayers. Anytime the District can free up millions of dollars to help keep our great instructional programs running during tough economic times, that seems like a good thing to me. This school board spent months analyzing the numbers, hearing from experts on both sides of the issue, hearing from a citizens advisory panel, and receiving both expert financial and legal advice that supported the decision to move forward.

Also, if we can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, again at no cost to the taxpayers and with millions in future savings for the local taxpayers, why would we not jump at the chance.

I fully understand that some who read this blog will not agree with our decision, regardless of the facts presented. So be it. I did what I thought was the best decision for the students, parents and taxpayers of the District. Financially it was the right decision for the District. It was the right decision for the taxpayers. It was the right decision for the students as millions of dollars will be freed up to support continued instructional programs.

If programs to expand our solar projects come before the Board in the future, I will demand the same level of financial scrutiny required of the current projects. It must make financial sense for the District and the taxpayers. The only loser in this whole set of projects will be PG&E, with millions in reduced revenues in future years from the taxpayers of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. Makes perfect sense to me!

Thanks for reading!

Greg Marvel


Posted by Harald A. Bailey, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 26, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Dear Editor,

I wish to applaud Greg for offering detailed commentary and make suggestions for future solar projects as an industry participant and SRVUSD resident:

#1 - Please make future installations match the zoning requirements of the surrounding neighborhoods and are discreet in its appearance in neighborhoods.

#2 - Please re-evaluate available technologies and their advantages in discreet installation and power production.

Many thanks to Greg for reading this exchange and his response,

Hal, CDSI Research (ZANT Alternative Energy)


Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Greg,

You say that because the solar panels were purchased with a federal loan, they provide savings at, "no cost to the taxpayers." This is incorrect.

SRVSD's solar panels were purchased under a federal program authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This program will cost the federal government $22 billion.

Under this program, SRVSD borrowed money at 0% by issuing a "Qualified School Construction Bond." In lieu of interest, the bond lender is entitled to a federal tax credit equal to a federal bond rate, currently around 7.5% - 8% (a handsome return in today's low interest markets).

You may have made a financially wise decision for the SRVSD, but it was a costly one for the federal government.

You also say your decision was made in order to, "help reduce our dependence on foreign oil." You must be mistaken. California does not get its electricity from oil. Rather, it is generated primarily from natural gas, nuclear, and dams.

Your note failed to mention the massive amounts of toxic pollution associated with the manufacture of solar panels and the toxic waste that SRVSD will need to deal with when the panels must ultimately be discarded. Apparently that environment cost is something you are willing to live with.


Posted by Right Wing Nut?, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Greg: First, thank you for responding. At a minimum, you deserve credit for being accessible to the voters, and listening to their concerns. Thank you for that. Just one follow up issue, regarding your note that you are a "fiscal conservative". As a "fiscal conservative", can you please explain your rationale and logic in arguing for and obtaining two parcel taxes that us taxpayers currently are paying for, claiming there was a budget emergency, but yet recently noting there is a budget surplus and you actually gave our tax money to teachers for days they did not even show up for work? I would hope that a "fiscal conservative" would not be a pawn for the liberal teacher's union. Can you please promise us "fiscal conservative voters" that since there is enough money now for you to give it away to teachers for not even showing up for work, that you will NOT vote for any additional parcel taxes? I look forward to your response, and again thank you listening.


Posted by OldHenry, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I was surprised to find out that my car radio would not work in the San Ramon Valley HS parking lot. Just static from the solar installation. Hope they work in the building under the roof array.
OldHenry


Posted by so_good, a resident of San Ramon
on Oct 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Thank you Greg for the post.

Most folks on this board were ignorant, did not have all the details but all they did was bark how bad this project was ... can you all please walk away with your tails between your legs.


Posted by r u kidding, a resident of Danville
on Oct 26, 2011 at 6:43 pm

The solar embarrassment: "Leaders" bought a "big idea"(cutting edge, I'm sure to those who enjoyed being pitched on the deal). The savings? Making money? How about publication of monthly utility use? Real numbers. Still leaving those lights on until all hours at empty playing fields?


Posted by jjj, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 27, 2011 at 9:04 am

just wondering if the solar company is willing to write checks if it does not meet requirements.. who will write that check if this co goes the way of solyndra


Posted by Greg, a resident of Danville
on Oct 27, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Thank you for all your responses. As a board, we looked at a variety of solar technology alternatives. We decided to only look at proven technologies. We did not want to gamble on something unproven. We also were aware that the technology in this area is advancing rapidly. However, at some point you have to proceed with what you have right now. I know people who have never bought a computer as they are waiting for the technology to get "perfected". With that philosophy, they will never buy a computer. The same could be said for solar. The financial numbers penciled out now, and we pulled the trigger.

On the issue of reducing our dependency on foreign oil, I disagree with the comment about California not using oil to generate electricity. California is part of a electric grid that includes 11 other states and two Canandian provinces. Our little bit of energy savings actually is felt throughout the Western Interconnection Grid, including those states that use oil, coal, and other forms of electric generation.

A comment was also made suggesting that the District could publish energy use. I agree. I will be suggesting that the District have a web page showing the real time power being generated by the solar (and thus not being purchased from PG&E). Great idea!

I also wanted to point out that as a Board member, I insisted that the solar panels needed to be made in the U.S., not in China or some other country. Some of the proposals did not include American made products. The rest of the Board agreed. In addition, the actual construction project on the solar created 140 full-time jobs for the four months of the installation. Those jobs generate income for local residents, plus significant tax dollars for the state and federal governments in terms of income taxes.

Finally, a comment was made about the budget "surplus" and the recent "raise" given to employees. We went to all of our employees and asked them to give up four days of pay during the 2010-11 school year as we were projected to continue to take budget hits from the state. It turned out that the budget hit was not as bad as predicted and we returned two of the days prior to the end of the 2010-11 school year. The expected additional cuts for 2011-12 were also less than expected. We felt the honest thing to do was to also return those monies we had taken from the employees. It was a one time adjustment only and is not ongoing. In other words, no one got a permanent salary increase. The "surplus" that was spoken of is money that the District set aside for just the kind of fiscal emergencies schools are now experiencing. A fiscal conservative plans ahead for the bad times. We did just that. The "surplus" is one time monies and it keeps dropping. By the end of next year we will be done to almost nothing in our reserves if the budget cuts from the state continue. We have tried to minimize cuts to programs, while keeping a prudent reserve. Unlike most districts that have increased class sizes to 30+ in the primary grades, we are still in the mid-20's. We will keep them as low as we can until it is no longer financially possible. Unlike the state that can't manage its finances, the SRVUSD does it every year. People can't have it both ways, where you are critized for having budget reserves (or surpluses as some call it) and then critized for being nearing financial collapse because you did not plan for prudent reserves. I will always come down on the side of fiscal prudence and assume that the school district must manage its finances carefully. No one is going to come and bail us out when we go under financially. There are no accounting gimmicks in the SRVUSD, unlike the state uses.

Again, thanks for listening!


Posted by CDSI Research, a resident of Alamo
on Oct 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Dear Editor,

To clarify for Greg, in thanks for his continuing dialog, Sunpower is a now a French Company, a subsidiary of Total, with production in SE Asia.


Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville
on Oct 27, 2011 at 4:59 pm

California does not get any electricity from oil, not even from electricity purchased from other states. See attached link from the California Energy Commission. The one exception is for emergency power, totaling less than 0.01%.

Web Link

Installing solar panels did not, "reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

SRVSD participated in a federal government program that will cost $22 billion. "Fiscally conservative?" Yeah, right.


Posted by Right Wing Nut?, a resident of Danville
on Oct 27, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Greg: Once again, thank you for listening and responding to our concerns. By listening and responding to our concerns, you are doing more than most of our elected officials, so thank you. However, you still never answered my question: Since you felt it was fiscally acceptable to give the teachers money for days they did not even go to work, do you promise no more new parcel taxes? A "fiscal conservative" should be able to answer this question rather easily.


Posted by C. R. Mudgeon, a resident of Danville
on Oct 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Independent of the various pros and cons expressed above for SRVUSD's solar panel projects, one factor that makes it a clear winner in the eyes of the district is that the cost of the solar panel installation can be paid for with available bond funds, as a capital improvement, whereas the savings that result free up operating budget that can be used for other things, such as salaries. So it is a very useful way to convert money from "pot A" to "pot B".

That's not to say that this is a bad thing to do. Retrofitting insulation into existing buildings would similarly free up operating budget, as would reducing water usage via re-done irrigation systems. But at the same time, I think it IS part of the motivation.


Posted by spongebob roundpants, a resident of Danville
on Oct 29, 2011 at 8:12 am

wow, again, what ignorance is displayed by the community at large.
1) fine, we don't get our energy from coal or oil. what about nukes? I seem to recall an incident in Japan a few months ago...
2) toxic materials in solar modules? Sure, CDTE in First Solar thin film, but sorry, polycrystalline (and CDTE) can be recycled. They don't go to landfills after their 30+ year service life.
3) the systems pay for themselves over time versus the cost of energy produced and put on the grid by the utility (PGE). Don't you get it? Even including manufacturing costs, so don't go there.
4) sure, it cost money, but it gets payed back over time. Do a cash flow analysis, please.
5) why are you surprised that your car radio doesn't work? It's call EMF.
5) the integrator (SPWR) is under obligation to write checks based on a performance guarantee (I'd guess for five years). There is risk associated with that, of course.
5) the couple things I would object to are a) SPWR modules are the most expensive around, pretty much - there are less expensive ways to go (Trina, Suntech, SolarOne, etc), and b) trackers on a canopy create excessive BOS costs (steel for support structures, etc).
You people QUACK ME UP! Including Mr. Greg - you need more expertise on your board when making these decisions.


Posted by [applause], a resident of Alamo
on Oct 29, 2011 at 8:38 am

Dear Editor,

Let's not lose what happened in this exchange to prejudice and defamation. Greg Marvel accepted the challenge of public voice as a individual citizen who was part of the SRVUSD decision to build industrial solar power generation stations in our neighborhoods. There is valid reason to object to such industrialization in our neighborhoods but at the same time we need to thank Greg for stepping forward to explain the decisions by the SRVUSD board.

Too many of our boards and councils hide behind their meetings' ability to restrict public interactions, consideration and mitigation. In most cases, once a decision is made by such boards and councils, the individual members stonewall any challenge to the decisions and the result and refuse comment.

So let's simply applaud Greg and all the commentators in this exchange for bringing needed public discussion to government decisions that are most often restricted by "fill out a card, wait to be called, do your three minutes and then shut up and go away."


Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville
on Oct 29, 2011 at 10:15 am

Dear Mr. Roundpants,

Does it make sense for the Federal government to spend $22 billion promoting solar technology that produces electricity at $0.22 per kWh? Or should we just leave free markets alone, where (outside of California) most of the country enjoys electricity for around $0.08 per kWh or less? You're not seeing the big picture.

I don't fault SRVSD, other than the nonsense about how the solar panels will "reduce our dependence on foreign oil" "at not cost to the taxpayer" and help the environment. Nonsense. But SRVSD likely made the right choice. They brought Federal pork dollars home. That's how the system works, for now.


Posted by Mikd, a resident of Danville
on Nov 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

What everyone is not aware of is that the oil and natural gas industries receive substantial subsidies and tax benefits and have received these benefits for nearly 100 years. Our national and state governments have provided these subsidies. Without them, back then and continuing non-stop to the present day, the oil and natural gas industries would likely not enjoy the monopolies they have today. It's clear, the USA in particular and the world in general, must move to new energy sources to fuel future growth, encourage home-grown energy independence, help eliminate the cancer-causing impact of fossil fuels, and encourage the development of cheaper sources of energy.


Posted by Jake, a resident of Alamo
on Nov 2, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Mr. Marvel

I applaud you for engaging the community although I do not agree that there indeed is such a thing as free lunch. Alternative/renewable energy has no pay back without subsidies of various forms. As a corporate person responsible for energy conservation and energy management, I have studied the total cost of these systems and have resolved that we may want to use alternative energy for other reasons, however, the financial benefit is not one.
In California:
Federal and State subsidize the Solar manufacturers/renewables (tax payer $), then by legislation force the utilities to buy power from these types of power generators(minimum 30% of total power) which then drives the price of energy way up (rate payers bear the burden)and then some school districs use these high rates to justify buying solar! circle completed!


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