School board to discuss solar plan

School board to discuss solar plan

Michele Ellson
Alameda solar

Photo courtesy of Go Solar California.

Should Alameda’s schools go solar? School board members will discuss the merits tonight of moving forward with a plan to install solar panels atop Alameda’s public schools.

Proponents of the plan say it would further Alameda Unified’s efforts to go green while eliminating millions of dollars in power costs. But schools administrators are saying the plan is preliminary and that they are nowhere near ready to move forward on it.

The plan, which was created by Kyoto USA, says it would cost the district $14.6 million to install solar panels at all of its schools and another $2 million to maintain them over 20 years. The district would save $18.2 million over the first two decades the panels are in place, offsetting those costs, proponents of the plan say.

Members of Community Action for a Sustainable Alameda, which has been spearheading the effort to put the plan in place, are calling on the school board to include it in a facilities bond the board is considering for the November ballot and also, its just-approved facilities master plan. The board is expected to decide Tuesday night whether to move forward with a bond.

“We will work with you to get the bond passed if this is included,” CASA’s David Burton told school board members on June 10.

Debi Ryan, principal of the Alameda-based renewable energy consulting firm ProudPlanet LLC and a member of CASA's steering committee, said she was pleased to see the board will consider the solar plan tonight. But she said she doesn't think any of the group's members are satisfied with its lack of inclusion in the facilities plan or in the bond program board members okayed on June 10.

"Without attaching or adding the (solar master plan) as an amendment, there is NO actual cost allocation (or accounting) for solar power within the proposed $180 million bond budget," Ryan said. "There is mere mention of 'evaluating' solar as the district moves forward, and this does not commit the district to any real action."

Board trustee Trish Hererra Spencer asked her dais-mates to consider the plan at tonight’s meeting. But district staff says they need more time to work out the details of installing solar panels at schools.

“Staff has not had time to analyze or investigate its feasibility against the other realities and variables in AUSD, such as the practicality of installing canopies in parking areas, and how the proposed (solar plan) integrates into the (facilities master plan) as a whole,” the district’s chief business officer, Robert Clark, wrote in a report to the board for Tuesday’s meeting.

In his report, Clark said district staffers need time to consult with both Alameda Municipal Power and individual school communities on specifics, and to determine whether panels can be installed on each school’s roof. If the board chooses to include it in its current bond proposal, trustees would need to figure out what to take out to cover the cost.

“Staff would prefer to be prudent and consider all the financial implications, as well as the infrastructure and construction before taking action to include an external proposal into the (facilities master plan),” Clark wrote. “To include the proposed (solar master plan) as it is would dismantle staff’s opportunity to vet the proposed plan and give it the appropriate attention it deserves.”

CASA’s David Teeters said the idea was first presented to schools leaders by Kyoto USA four years ago. Superintendent Kirsten Vital said June 10 that the district had just received the plan in May, though Burton said a draft was submitted to Alameda Unified in December and that its author had been working with the district in the intervening months.

On April 8, the board okayed a resolution authorizing district staff to ask Alameda Municipal Power to reserve space in its existing solar power program. The utility’s board is contemplating a second solar program that solar advocates have said would offer less favorable terms to anyone who might be considering solar panels once the existing program is full.

“Beyond the cost savings to the (d)istrict, solar and other energy efficiency projects will provide an educational component that will improve the education experience of all our children,” says the resolution, which calls inclusion in the utility’s existing program a “key element” in the district’s decision to move forward on a solar program.

It lists solar as one of the items that arose in community meetings to discuss the facilities plan.

The Mount Diablo Unified School District included solar panels for 51 schools in a 2010 bond program, a project that will reportedly cost $94 million after bond interest is included and was expected to save the district more than $220 million over 30 years. But some disputed the amount of money that district would save.

In December 2013, Oakland Unified announced plans to install solar panels at 16 schools.

In his report, Clark said the district should focus on completing energy efficiency projects funded by the state’s Proposition 39 first. He said it would be “inefficient” for the district to generate electricity before fixing leaky windows and old heating and cooling systems.

The school district got $399,187 in Proposition 39 energy efficiency funds for 2013-14, and Alameda’s four charter schools got a combined $250,000, California Department of Education records show. But proponents of the solar plan said that wouldn’t be enough money to pay for solar at schools.

The district saw its energy usage drop nearly 14 percent between June 2009 and June 2013, an April 29 to the school board says, though that is short of its goal of reducing energy by 5 percent each year. Alameda Unified spent $926,265 on electricity during the 2012-13 fiscal year, the report says.

If money for solar isn’t included in the bond, the district could consider having an outside investor pay for systems through a power purchase agreement, said Ryan. Under such an agreement, an investor would buy and maintain solar systems on school rooftops and the district would purchase power from the investor.

But Ryan said purchasing solar systems with money from a bond would be more cost-efficient.

The school board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Alameda High School cafeteria, 2201 Encinal Avenue; the cafeteria entrance is on the school’s Central Avenue side. The meeting agenda is on the school district website.