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California schools harness sunshine to cut energy costs

More schools install solar panels to tap California's sunshine and reduce energy costs. But among the snags are predictable complaints about aesthetics and an unexpected directional mixup.

April 16, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Workers install the iron structures that will support the solar panels in a faculty parking lot at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. One teacher expects shaded spaces under the panels to be popular.
Workers install the iron structures that will support the solar panels… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

To plug in to solar energy, you need photovoltaic cells, controllers, inverters, combiner boxes and plenty of copper wiring.

Oh yes — and a compass.

Workers at Valencia High School found that out when they installed solar power arrays facing the wrong way.

The 4,815-panel project is just one of an increasing number of solar arrays springing up on campuses across the state as financially strapped school systems try to save billions in electricity costs. But tapping into the sun can be trickier than it looks, schools are discovering.

At Valencia High, a subcontractor apparently misread plans when bolting down some panels.

"They used a crane to pick them up and do a 180-degree spin," explained Gail Pinsker, spokeswoman for the William S. Hart Union High School District. "They were aimed wrong."

The repair job was free. So is the 7.3-megawatt system being installed by PsomasFMG. In exchange for use of the equipment, the Hart district is obligated to buy electricity from the private company, at a discounted rate, for 20 years.

After that, the company will remove the panels or extend the agreement. The equipment's typical lifespan is 25 years, said Paul Mikos, executive vice president of the firm.

Such buyback deals, incentive programs, zero-interest loans and direct purchases can save school systems as much as 85% of their electricity costs.

Finding a good spot to put huge solar arrays can be a challenge; California's Division of the State Architect has to approve and oversee all installations.

When the Huntington Beach City School District teamed up with Chevron Energy Solutions to power nine campuses, many assumed the photovoltaic panels would be unobtrusively mounted on classroom roofs.

But the roof of the 78-year-old Dwyer Middle School wasn't strong enough to hold them. When it wasn't feasible to place the panels over the faculty parking lot, it was decided to plant them on the school's front lawn. Students reacted swiftly.

"Get off our grass!" pupils chanted at protests last year. Plans called for the construction of panels on the lawn where eighth-graders traditionally hold their culmination ceremonies.

The 12-foot-tall district-owned arrays, paid for by solar initiatives and federal bonds, were eventually built "with a split in the middle" where commencements can take place, said Principal Morgan Smith. Although some still find the panels unattractive, the installation "has not been a conversation this year" among students, he said.

The photovoltaic panels placed behind the Sonoma home where Nancie Ligon and her husband, James, have lived for 34 years are certainly a conversation-starter, however. They and other neighbors say the ground-level arrays on land owned by the Sonoma Valley Unified School District are eyesores that were erected with insufficient notice and input from area residents.

"When one sees the size, scope and unsightliness of the solar farms, you quickly understand why the district was so secretive about these installations," James Ligon wrote in a letter to the Sonoma Valley Sun.

District Deputy Supt. Justin Frese refuted charges that the district was secretive. Residents were notified of the project, and voters in 2010 approved a $40-million general obligation bond that earmarked funds for the project. The district will also plant landscape screening when the solar installation is finished next month.

At the San Ramon Unified School District, which used federal bonds to place panels at five schools, there were disruptions last year at one campus during the construction. But the district has decided to expand the program to a sixth campus, spokesman Terry Koehne said.

Los Angeles school leaders are also buying their own solar panels for 52 campuses and seven other district facilities. They hope to save $112 million over the next 20 years with the 21-megawatt system.

Seventeen schools have received solar arrays so far. The district is financing its $146-million program through a combination of local bond money and cash from its 2008 settlement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power of a lawsuit that alleged schools were overcharged for electricity for nearly two decades.

Los Angeles school officials have hired five private companies to provide and install equipment, said Shannon Haber, a spokeswoman for the district's facilities department.

At Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Chevron Energy Solutions is putting 168 panels over the front faculty parking lot.

"This is very well-designed," said Principal Delia Estrada, whose office window overlooks the work.

Health education teacher Bridget Brownell hinted that parking spots beneath the photovoltaic panels will be popular. Woodland Hills has the distinction of having recorded the hottest temperature ever in Los Angeles County: 119 degrees.

"The shade is an added bonus," Brownell said.

Senior Sara Gedalia, 18, said the solar installation gives the high school a more modern look. Classmate Noah Segal wasn't so sure.

"It kind of takes away from the look of Taft," said Segal, also 18. "Maybe they should have gone on the roof."

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