Solar panels popping up at schools
THE STUDENT PARKING lot at Sonoma Valley High School is closed while workers get ready to install carport solar panels in the lot.
Solar panels are starting to pop up at various Sonoma Valley Unified School District sites.
The most noticeable, at this point, are those near the district offices on Railroad Avenue, those in back of the bus barn, also on Railroad Avenue, and on the south side of Adele Harrison Middle School.
The panels, and many more to come, are part of the $9.8 million contract with Roebbelen Construction to make the entire district solar powered.
The project, which will employ 7,140 solar panels spread out around the district, will make SVUSD one of the first - if not the first - school districts in the state of its size or larger to go completely solar.
Justin Frese, deputy superintendent, said the architects aren't sure how the project ranks because there is no master list of school districts going completely solar. Frese said some of the smaller school districts with maybe one or two schools have gone completely solar. "But we're in the forefront," he said.
The project, which started in mid-June after classes were out, is a bit behind, but the contractor has about four more weeks to get the job finished. "It's going to be a push," he said, to get the project done by mid-August.
"The next week or two will be telling," Frese said. "We have a variety of issues, including with the supplier of the carport units." He pointed out that having multiple sites added a layer of complexity to the project.
In addition to the solar farm at the district offices, the district is going with shade structures with solar panels on top and with carport units in the parking lots.
Frese said the district is going with units that have been pre-approved by the state architects instead of using roof-mounted panels.
"By using the pre-approved units, we saved probably a year in the approval process over the rooftop panels," he said. "And the rooftop panels would have been more expensive because of re-engineering the buildings, and anytime we would have to work on a roof, we'd have to pull the panels."
Frese pointed out that when Woodland Star School went solar, it used shade structures because they couldn't get approval to put the panels on the buildings.
When mounted, the panels won't follow sun as some solar panels can. Because of the problems that can go with tracking units, Frese said it just made more sense to buy additional panels.
And because the district had plenty of lead time, it placed its orders for solar panels early in the process.
Frese said that because the project is being paid for out of the $40 million bond that voters approved last November, the district will start seeing immediate savings.
"We're in a positive cash-flow position the first year," he said. "We'll see $600,000 in energy savings a year. And we'll be receiving $500,000 to $600,000 a year in rebates from PG&E over the next five years."
"That really helps with the budget issues," he added. "That's more than $1 million a year in income."
And that helps as the state is going to be taking back $2.6 million this year as part of the district's "fair share" of the state budget brouhaha.
Neighbors at some of the sites have contacted the I-T about concerns - including complaints of reflected light in their windows - but Frese said the district is continuing to meet with neighbors at the various sites to hear concerns.
And although some neighbors have complained about reflections from the panels, Frese said the panels are meant to absorb, not reflect.
And there were other concerns about putting the panels in a wetland just to the south of Adele Harrison Middle School. Frese said the district had a biologist look at the location to see if there were any nesting birds or any other ecological concerns.
"We want to answer their concerns," he said. "We want to be good neighbors."