IUSD Board of Education to consider the second phase of ambitious solar effort

It’s been more than a year since IUSD held an activation ceremony to mark the installation of solar panels at 13 schools and a pair of support facilities, and the data that’s been gathered over the last 12 months is beyond encouraging.

The sustainable solar technology that was affixed to rooftops and parking lot shade structures in 2010 and 2011 is now producing about 1.9 megawatts of clean energy, with the district saving about $220,000 annually.

And there’s an opportunity for even more savings and greater environmental benefits.

That’s because the initial batch of photovoltaic panels represented the first phase of a potentially larger project. Next week, the IUSD Board of Education will consider a series of new proposals for round two.

If approved by the board on May 15, the second phase would add vehicle shade structures – or canopies, as they’re sometimes called – outfitted with energy-producing solar panels to the parking lots of up to 11 sites throughout IUSD.

The schools under consideration are Alderwood, Canyon View, Oak Creek, Stonegate and Woodbury elementary schools; Vista Verde School, which is a K-8; Sierra Vista Middle School; and Irvine, Northwood, University and Woodbridge high schools. (To access renderings of the proposals, or to weigh in via an online input form, click here.)

Again, these are merely proposals at this point, and it will be up to the Board of Education to decide whether to move forward at any or all of the proposed sites. But the new panels could generate even more clean energy and provide millions of dollars’ worth of additional savings over the long term without IUSD paying any upfront capital costs, according to Mark Sontag, IUSD’s administrative lead on the project.

Sontag, who also serves as the district’s coordinator of math and science, said Phase 2 has the potential to generate approximately 4.5 megawatts. If the entire project was approved by the board, the combined total for phases 1 and 2 would be 6.4 megawatts, which would represent the second largest solar deployment for a public school district in California. The first-year savings for Phase 2 alone would be as high as $380,000, with the district projecting a 20-year savings of between $5 million and $11 million.

“Irvine and other school districts in California are facing significant fiscal challenges in light of the state budget crisis,” said Board of Education President Michael Parham, who spearheaded IUSD’s solar efforts along with Sontag. “This is an opportunity for us to capture added savings that would be unrestricted and available for educational priorities, and of course the environmental benefits are well documented.”

In fact, Phase 1 of the project produced enough energy to power 167 homes for a year and had the impact of removing 378 cars from the road. The first photovoltaic units have also been integrated into the district’s energy curriculum, allowing Irvine students to learn more about solar power while monitoring their own usage in real time.

Learning opportunities would increase with Phase 2. Other ancillary benefits would include downward-facing lights on the canopies, which could make campuses safer by illuminating school parking lots at night.

Meanwhile, other districts have followed IUSD’s lead in embracing solar technology through mutually beneficial power-purchasing agreements, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported.

Under the terms of IUSD’s original deal, which was approved by the board in 2009, SunEdison agreed to finance, operate and maintain the systems, enabling the company to take advantage of tax credits that public agencies can’t leverage. In exchange, IUSD agreed to purchase energy from SunEdison at a lower rate that was predictable long-term. Another company, SPG Solar, was brought in to build the units.

Along with its solar initiative, IUSD has in recent years reduced its electrical consumption, cut waste and added an 18-lesson curriculum on sustainable energy in grades five and six. For all of these efforts, representatives from the Sierra Club’s Orange County Committee on Climate Change announced the Irvine Unified School District as a recipient of its “Solar Energy and Good Practices Award” in 2011.