News

District-Wide Solar Panel Installation to Reduce Energy Costs

By Kiara Kunnes, Staff Writer

// In an effort to substantially reduce the school district’s carbon footprint, cut operating costs, and provide shade for students and faculty members, the district has installed solar carports at all of the schools in the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD).

   The 1,764 newly-installed solar panels have already provided shade for all of the 321 parking spaces at Acalanes but have yet to produce energy, according to facilities manager Dave Humphrey. The solar panels are estimated to begin producing energy by the end of the year.

   According to Humphrey, there have been no major delays in the construction of the solar panels.

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Picture taken by Bennett Baker

   The AUHSD community will be able to reduce its carbon footprint significantly.  The reducing of carbon emission will be equal to taking 350 cars off the roads, according to a letter sent out by District Superintendent John Nickerson.

  SolarCity financed, designed, and constructed the project. It will maintain and operate the photovoltaic solar panels and battery products for the next 25 years, as a result of a power purchase agreement with SolarCity approved by the AUHSD Governing Board in June 2015.

   During those 25 years, the district will purchase the power generated from the solar panels from SolarCity, thereby offsetting SolarCity’s outlay for construction and maintenance. After 25 years, the district will have the opportunity to purchase the solar panels outright, Humphrey said.

   Acalanes uses approximately 90,000 kilowatt hours of electricity every month, resulting in  monthly cost of about $13,000 in past years.

  The solar carports are estimated to save $110,900 or $27,000 per campus in one year, and the net present value of the 25-year contract is estimated to be $2.3 million with a conservative 2% utility inflation rate, according to a letter sent out by Superintendent Nickerson. However, once the solar panels are on the PG&E grid the district will be able to better determine those savings, according to Humphrey.

   Each of the AUHSD solar panels is backed up by Tesla batteries, which store unused power for peak periods. The Acalanes Tesla batteries are located in a planter on the west side of the performing arts center.

    “One thing to realize is that we are going to have solar panels and we are going to have battery backup, however, solar panels do not work at night and the batteries will only last for about an hour at night, so we are still going to have costs and we are going to realize some kind of a savings,”  Humphrey said.

   Also, according to Humphrey just because Acalanes has solar panels, it doesn’t mean that the school is not paying PG&E.

   Humphrey said, “ Even if you were able to pencil out 100 percent, you are still using their transmission lines. They charge you for the use of their transmission lines.”

   The district has yet to decide where the savings will go, but both Humphrey and Associate Principal Andy Briggs assume the money saved will increase the general fund. The general fund pays for everything that most people do not think about, such as water and heating, Humphrey said. 

   Acalanes lost four regular parking stalls, but not as a result of the installation of the solar carports. The state asked the district to put in more handicap spaces.

   AUHSD has crystalline solar panels, which are currently one of the most efficient types of panels. The solar panels generate power for all of the school’s needs during the day, however, solar generation will vary on the type of day. PG&E will be able to provide additional energy as needed.

   Humphrey explained that the solar energy is stored in a battery as DC power. The DC power is converted to AC power which can then be used to power the school’s needs. The excess energy not used during the daytime will be put on the grid.

   Most Lamorinda residents approve of the solar installations and feel the carports will benefit the community, but some members of the Acalanes community are not at ease with the structures’ appearance. However, most people feel that the appearance of the structures’ are outweighed by the positive impact solar panels have on the environment.

   “It is something that was not there before so it takes up space, and your eyes are naturally drawn to it, but I think it is fine since it helps the environment,” Lori Green, a home owner in the Acalanes area said.

   Junior Annie Klopstock has mixed opinions as well. Klopstock enjoys the shade,but she doesn’t like that the newly painted mural on the gym is obstructed by the panels.

  “They provide shade for the cars which is nice, but at the same time they block the new mural that we just spent a lot of money on,” Junior Annie Klopstock said.

   Even though some students and other members of the Acalanes community are not completely satisfied with the appearance of the solar panels, neither Briggs or Humphrey have received any complaints.

   “It is one of those things where maybe it is not that pretty to look at, but we know it is for a good cause. Also, we are not the first place to do this. It is more and more common,” Briggs said.

   Acalanes is currently looking at alternative places to put murals around the campus, according to Briggs. Some possible locations include the areas between the two gyms and the front of the Performing Arts Center.

   Some students have reported an increase in traffic, however, Briggs has not received any complaints regarding traffic or an increase in accidents.

   “I feel like the footprint of the traffic has not really been affected,” Briggs said. “I mean traffic leaving after sixth and seventh was bad last year, and it is bad this year. I have not really seen a difference.”

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   The solar carports provide a tremendous amount of shade so that teachers, students, and parents don’t have to return to a hot car. Parking in the shade also contributes to fuel efficiency since it reduces the heat collected in a closed car, thereby eliminating the need to use as much air conditioning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.

   The AUHSD is also currently installing solar thermal heating for the pools at all of the comprehensive high schools. The solar thermal panels are being installed on the roof of the small gym, the large gym, the P.E. classroom, and over the weight room as well.

   The solar thermal is part of a Prop 39 energy bill, according to Humphrey. This project should be finished around late October.

   The solar panels have changed the environment of the parking lots at each of the schools, but Acalanes and the rest of the AUHSD are looking forward to significantly reducing their carbon footprint, cutting general operating costs, and modeling the use of renewable energy for their students for the next 25 years and potentially into the distant future.

   “I think this does give us a opportunity to make this place unique again, but other than that it is progress, we move on,” Briggs said.

 

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