Work Begins on Washington School Solar Panels

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 09:57:00 AM

Washington Elementary is set to become the first school in the Berkeley Unified School District to go solar, once construction of photovoltaic cells on its roof is completed in August. 

Work to replace the school’s roof began at the end of June, district officials said, and solar panels are expected to go up in the next couple of weeks. 

After deliberating on the project for several months, the Berkeley Board of Education voted unanimously in June 2007 to allow the district to enter into a legal agreement with Berkeley-based nonprofit Kyoto USA to carry out the design work for the proposed project. 

Estimated to cost $1.2 million, the HELiOS (Helios Energy Lights Our Schools) project is expected to cover 100 percent of the main building’s electricity needs and is being funded by grants from the Office of Public School Construction, PG&E and district money. 

Lew Jones, the district’s director of facilities, told the Planet that Eshone—the contractors hired to carry out the work—were in the process of replacing the roof with a new one. 

“The roof has to be replaced to put in structural support,” Jones said. “We expect the solar panels to go up by the third week of August. It’s a pilot project, and we are interested to see how it works so that we can try it out in the other schools as well. We don’t know if we’ll be able to use the panels right when school starts, but that’s our goal.” 

Tom Kelly of Kyoto USA, who spearheaded the proposal along with his wife Jane Kelly, said he was happy to see the project get underway. 

“The Washington community is very excited about it,” he said. “The installation is likely to lead to educational opportunities for the kids. The cost of electricity from utilities is skyrocketing, so this investment in solar is likely to pay off very quickly. And it’s helping to reduce the amount of pollution and global warming gases—created by the burning of fossil fuels to produce the electricity the old-fashioned way.” 

Kelly said although the project was approved a year ago, the timeline for its construction was accurate, since getting it designed by an architect, identifying a building contractor and receiving approval from the Division of the State Architect took a considerable amount of time. 

“The first two matters required that an RFP be issued by the district, seeking qualified applicants,” he said. 

“It was also assumed that the construction would have to occur during a summertime when the school was not as heavily used.” 

The bids for the photovoltaic system and the new roof, Kelly said, came in at $900,000. 

Kelly said Kyoto USA was already looking at its next school. 

“We’d very much like to do the high school,” he said. “It has 3,000 students and gives us an opportunity to move this discussion to a much larger segment of our community. It certainly presents some challenges—a much bigger project, for one—but could also be a major catalyst in moving toward the solarization of all our public schools. It also gives us a chance to address energy conservation in the school and work on changing the type of individual and institutional behaviors that have grown up around cheap, and often polluting, energy.” 

To help finance the project, the organization is building a framework for a “community offset fund” so that donors will be able to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by making a tax-deductible contribution to a local project like HELiOs. 

The project will be based out of the Ecology Center.