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School district takes first steps to going solar

The Claremont Unified School District is going solar, thanks to money that the passage of Proposition 39, also known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act, is expected to yield.

The proposition, which was passed in November of 2000, changed the corporate income tax code and allocates projected revenue to the state’s General Fund and the Clean Energy Job Creation Fund for five fiscal years, beginning with fiscal year 2013-2014. The money is to be used for energy efficiency and conservation programs.

Under the initiative, some $550 million is made available each year for appropriation for eligible projects to improve energy efficiency and expand clean energy generation in the state’s schools.

The district won’t receive a huge amount of funding. But with some good planning, it can make an impact in the carbon footprint, and the utility bills, of local schools, according to Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker.

The California Energy Commission requires a complicated and time-consuming application process for districts hoping to obtain the Prop 39 funds. As a result, CUSD has engaged the help of JB3 Consulting, a firm with considerable experience on the topic.

At the August 20 school board meeting, JB3 account executive John Burdette took to the podium to familiarize the board and community members with the process. The district must first conduct an energy audit. He will be visiting each of CUSD’s campuses, rating them in order from most to least energy-efficient.

No one is getting in trouble, Ms. Shoemaker noted. High energy consumption at a campus likely results from the school’s population and infrastructure as opposed to wasteful behaviors. In fact, CUSD has spent the last few years training all district personnel on how to do more with less.

Next, the district must work to reduce energy usage within conventional means, such as switching out lights for more energy-efficient ones. Once the district is as lean and green as possible, it is free to submit its plans to the California Energy Commission.

Many schools aiming for Prop 39 funds are looking to get involved in solar energy. It’s an option that makes economic sense as well as an environmental difference. After all, electricity bills are one of the inelastic demands faced by districts across the country, including Claremont Unified.

Many schools that have gone solar have managed to achieve cost-neutrality for their projects, Mr. Burdette shared. What that means is there has been immediate utility bill relief, enough to offset the installation of solar devices. Once a solar project is paid for, the energy savings continue in perpetuity. In that case, a solar project goes beyond paying for itself and helps schools reap further savings.  

Last year marked the first year of Prop 39 allocation. CUSD received $130,000, of which $110,500 was paid to JB3 Consulting. It is expected that Claremont schools will continue to receive funding each year for four years, although the amount will shrink a bit. The way CUSD can get the most bang for its governmental buck is to leverage Prop 39 revenue by applying for grants and by taking on low-interest or even no-interest loans for specific projects.

Next up, Alex Smith from PFMG Solar spoke about the kind of solar energy installations that would be a good fit for Claremont schools.  When most people think of solar panels, they picture them on roofs.

Mr. Smith said it’s probably not a good idea for Claremont to start with its roofs for two reasons. The first is that the roofs are not generally suitable for solar panels.

The second, and perhaps more pressing, reason is that when you get into altering existing structures, you run the risk of triggering new requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When you do extensive renovations, it’s required that buildings be thoroughly examined for ADA compliance, the requirements of which have tended to grow over the years. If the district tried to reroof with solar panels, it’s possible that the entire building in question would have to be revamped for compliance, with possible reduxes running from better grading of the ground to wider corridors to a bathroom revamp. While the district aims for safety first, it has a limited amount of money for capital improvements. It can’t afford for one site to become an unplanned money pit.

What most of the districts PFMG Solar has worked with are opting for instead are solar arrays installed in open sites like parking lots and playing fields. The arrays, which might be installed next to a blacktop are, for instance—are tall enough that kids can run underneath them. They can also serve as shade structures for students looking to eat, study or relax while getting relief from the heat. In many cases, Mr. Smith said, schools have opted to paint the solar arrays’ columns in school colors, making them a matter of campus as well as environmental pride.

Schools the company has worked with range from nearby Pomona Unified and Chaffey Joint Union High School all the way to Redondo Beach.

The process is just at its beginning, but Ms. Shoemaker, Mr. Smith and Mr. Burdette are in agreement that the sooner CUSD gets the process started the better. Interest rates are low, and both construction costs and electricity bills—should they follow longstanding trends—will only get more expensive.

The presentation was for information only. The COURIER will follow further developments with regards to solar panel installation and other capital improvements within the district.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com