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L.A. Unified launches solar energy program

The school district announces a $350-million goal of putting enough solar panels on schools and other district buildings to generate 50 megawatts of electricity by 2012 and lower its electricity bill.

February 10, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

When the writer's strike left him idle last year, Jeremy Kromberg decided to give up on the film industry, where he had worked in postproduction, and slide in on the ground floor of the next big thing. That is how the 37-year-old from Hollywood found himself at an adult school on the Eastside on Monday, practicing his technique for fastening solar panels onto rooftops.

"We just do it over and over," he said. "We build them up and tear them down just as fast as we can."

Not that he minds. Kromberg was enthusiastic about the program at the East Los Angeles Skills Center, which will allow him to become a certified solar energy technician. He figures that, with the economy crashing down around him, he will be well placed to take advantage of what promises to be a public spending boom in solar energy, beginning with a $350-million program launched Monday by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In an announcement at the Skills Center, L.A. Unified officials said the district had set a goal of putting enough solar panels on schools and other district buildings to generate 50 megawatts of electricity by 2012. That is enough energy to power as many as 50,000 homes, though the district will use it to light schools and lower its $80-million annual electricity bill.

The "We Build Green" program may cost taxpayers more money than it will ultimately save in energy use. Randy Britt, the district's director of sustainability, said the solar installations should save about $12.5 million a year for 20 to 25 years, for a maximum of about $320 million. Still, district officials said the program will also create jobs and provide enough of an economic stimulus to more than pay for itself.

"We are fighting for our economic lives," said David Crippins, chairman of the district's school construction bond oversight committee, in remarks to students in the solar installation program. "What you are doing is absolutely essential, because we must become energy independent and, especially here in California, we must create our own jobs."

The concept of the program is not dissimilar to the idea behind Measure B on the March 3 ballot, which would require the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to install 400 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2014. For its program, L.A. Unified will train solar installers in its adult schools, using a curriculum developed at the East Los Angeles Center by teacher Brian Hurd.

The program has already turned out 300 graduates, and Hurd said their skills are in such demand that some have been hired by private contractors before they even finish the three-month basic course of study.

Money for the school district's program comes primarily from Measure Q on last November's ballot, which authorized the sale of $7 billion in bonds to pay for school construction and modernization.

However, the 50 megawatts also includes 1 megawatt from solar panels installed late last year on a Pico Rivera warehouse and 3.7 megawatts from panels to be installed soon on seven schools and one other site. Those eight installations are to be paid for by DWP, partially with money the district won when it settled a 2000 lawsuit against the utility complaining of overcharging. The school board is expected to authorize that expenditure today.

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mitchell.landsberg @latimes.com

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