Thursday, December 22, 2011
B udget cuts and revenue losses are clouding financial forecasts at schools across California. Yet even as classroom sizes balloon and arts programs wither, one capital-intensive trend is making notable gains: solar power.
Locally, private institutions like Chartwell School in Seaside, York School in Monterey and Monterey College of Law have been among the first to go solar. But with proven economic and academic incentives, even public schools are increasingly coming online.
Last year, through an arrangement called a power purchase agreement (PPA), CSU Monterey Bay filled a vacant lot with 6,900 solar panels, enough to provide 16 percent of the campus’ electricity. The LEED-certified classrooms unveiled this fall at Carmel Middle School’s Hilton Bialek Habitat include rooftop photovoltaics. On Nov. 16, the Monterey County Office of Education OK’d a $3 million lease-purchase agreement with Chevron Energy Systems to install a solar array at its campus in Salinas.
And on Dec. 12, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District contracted with Terra Verde Renewable Partners to take a broad look at energy options, including solar.
The first step will be a district-wide energy audit. “You always want to reduce the load before you offset it with solar,” Terra Verde President Rick Brown says.
Solar is also making gains as a subject of vocational training. Oakland-based nonprofit GRID Alternatives has recruited students from Hartnell and Cabrillo colleges, and the Center for Employment Training in Gilroy, to install solar-electric systems on dozens of low-income homes in Monterey County.
“There’s almost competition to get into these installs, because it’s such a great training process,” says David Garti, Central Coast outreach coordinator for GRID Alternatives.
MPUSD board member Debra Gramespacher, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at CSUMB, is using the school district as a case study for her thesis project on how public agencies can integrate renewable resources such as solar energy. She found that solar-electric arrays can help MPUSD reduce its utility costs, cut greenhouse gas emissions, generate revenue through the sale of renewable energy certificates (or “RECs”), and provide a learning laboratory for the Career Technical Education curriculum.
“It makes sense to coordinate local contractors into a green-collar workforce here within the community, because it’s probably the fastest-growing employment in the country,” she says.
If the district finances its own solar power system, it can sell its RECs to polluters, like PG&E, that under state law must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Alternatively, a PPA would allow an outside energy provider, like SunEdison, to rent roof space from the district and sell both the RECs and the electricity generated.
Kristin Cushman, founder of Pacific Grove-based The Offset Project, is hoping to keep proceeds from local RECs local. Her nonprofit’s Monterey Bay Offset Fund facilitates the sale of RECs to fund solar panels for local nonprofits and public agencies, particularly schools. It’s now working on a solar installation at Bonny Doon Elementary School in Santa Cruz County.
“The proceeds of those RECs could be redirected to a student program,” she says. “There’s a lot of potential here.”