The San Ramon Valley Unified School District's solar project is now operational and as of October 1st, converting solar energy to electricity. The solar initiative, which is expected to generate 6.2 million kilowatt hours per year, was recently featured on CNN.
Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley high schools, Diablo Vista Middle school and San Ramon's California and Doughtery Valley high schools have all installed panels. Below are some frequently asked questions regarding the project:
Q: What is the San Ramon Valley Unified School District's current Solar Project?
A: SRVUSD is in the final stages of constructing solar arrays in the parking lots of five schools in the District: California High School, Dougherty Valley High School, Monte Vista High School, San Ramon Valley High School and Diablo Vista Middle School. These five systems are comprised of more than 10,000 panels. The systems, by contract, begin converting solar energy to electricity at these schools starting October 1, 2011.
Q: How is the project being funded?
A: The Federal government, as part of its most recent stimulus program established the "Qualified School Construction Bond Program." SRVUSD applied for and was approved to receive $25 million in QSCBs through this program. Essentially this is a near 0% interest loan to the District that is paid off through the energy savings realized by the systems.
Q: What is the cost to the school district?
A: There is no net cost to the district because the monthly energy savings are being applied to the debt service. In approximately 16 years the bonds will be paid off and the District will begin realizing an estimated $3-5 million per year in energy savings to the District's General Fund Budget.
Q: Why would the SRVUSD consider incurring so much debt with the budget problems we are facing?
A: Financial consultants have analyzed the solar project and determined that it will provide significant cost savings, actually freeing up significant funds for direct support of students and schools. After 25 years, the cumulative savings (after the debt is paid) is expected to exceed $23 million. The District will be paying for the solar panels with rebates and savings on electricity.
Q: How were these Qualified Construction Bonds to be used?
A: They were intended to create jobs through approved construction projects. The Board of Education decided that the money should be used for solar as it would generate savings to pay back the loan and create on-going savings to the district. The Board and staff also believed it was important for the school district to model environmental stewardship and energy conservation for students and the community.
Q: How long has the District been involved in this process?
A: The Board of Education approved the project in May, 2010 following several months of study and numerous public meetings, which included a report and recommendation from an independent community-based committee.
Q: Why were these five schools chosen as Solar Schools?
A: Independent consultants concluded that the selected sites would generate the greatest return on the investment. Having large, open parking lots was the most significant factor for determining where to install the solar shade structures.
Q: How much energy are these systems projected to produce?
A: Combined, the systems incorporate more than 10,000 solar panels. The systems will generate more than 60% of the electricity needed for the schools, with an expected first-year output of more than six million kilowatt hours (kWh).
Q: What solar company did the district choose to install the systems and why?
A: After many proposals and a lengthy interview process, SunPower was selected based on their reputation, pricing, as well as the 95 percent performance guarantee they provided and their compliance with the "Made in America" regulations. SunPower panels are regarded as the most efficient in the world at converting solar energy to electricity.
Q: Why doesn't the District use the $25 million on other things like improving facilities, or hiring more teachers?
A: The $25 million in Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCBs) has to be repaid, so it must be spent on a revenue generating project. The funds cannot be used to hire teachers or expand programs; they are intended to help stimulate the economy through job creation within the construction industry.
Q: Why didn't the District wait a few years to see if solar gets less expensive and/or more efficient?
A: This bond was only available for a limited time, and it was doubtful that similar bonds or stimulus funds would be available in the future. Also, currently the PG&E rebates for solar energy are generous and the price of solar panels is relatively low because of the economy. Installation costs have also been falling due to the economic downturn. The district felt this was the opportune time to take advantage of the program as there are no guarantees that this favorable combination will last.
Q: Are there other school districts going solar?
A: Many districts in California are turning to solar energy, including Milpitas, San Jose, San Mateo, San Diego, Los Angeles, Oxnard and Mt. Diablo school districts.
Q: Why did the District choose to place the panels on parking arrays rather than rooftops?
A: A number of the schools' roofs are not oriented well for solar panels. There are also issues about the ages of the roofs and concerns about penetrating the roofs to anchor the solar panels. Parking lot structures have the added benefit of using automated panels that rotate with the sun to maximize exposure, as well as shaded parking and better lighting at night.
Q: How are the systems being maintained, repaired and cleaned?
A: The cost of maintenance and repair, including cleaning, is included in the cost of the contract for seventeen years. In addition to this, SunPower has a 25-year manufacturer's warranty on the panels and a 20-year warranty on inverters.
Q: What if the panels don't generate as much energy as projected? Are there performance guarantees or warranties?
A: SunPower has a performance guarantee in place. If the output of the panels falls below 95% of projected output, SunPower will compensate the District accordingly. SunPower designed systems have typically been averaging 100-105 percent of design capacity.
Q: Other than saving the District money, what are the benefits related to solar energy?
A: The panels provide important environmental benefits like reduction in carbon, sulfur and nitrogen emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and economic benefits by creating jobs that benefit California as well as the local economy.
Q: How confident is the District with the financial projections related to the solar project?
A: The District used very conservative projections, and believes there is an excellent chance that we will exceed the savings projected. We also believe the contract the district entered into will be considered a model for other school districts, and has already been given significant positive attention throughout the state and beyond.
Q: Is the District also looking into other energy conservation strategies?
A: Yes. The District currently budgets $3.3 million annually for electricity. The District is exploring additional strategies including retrofitting with low energy-use bulbs and equipment, implementing centralized set points for heating and cooling, and remote monitoring and control systems. The district is also promoting "conservation as human behavior" as the most significant factor in energy conservation and energy savings.
Q: Is the district looking to expand the project?
A: The district is looking into the possibility of combining the remaining unused QSCB funds (@ $700,000) with the anticipated first-year savings associated with the five operational systems to provide solar at one additional school. Gale Ranch Middle School was originally considered as part of a six-school solar project, and has both the space and sun exposure capacity. The district is exploring this option, but no decision has been made.