School District Explores Possibility of a Solar Future

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 07:59:00 PM

The solar project at Washington Elementary School, the first public school in Berkeley to run on renewable energy, has encouraged the Berkeley Unified School District to investigate whether other schools could save on their electricity bills through a similar initiative, district officials said. 

KyotoUSA, the nonprofit that proposed converting Washington to the use of solar power almost two years ago, organized an event at its West Berkeley office Monday to celebrate the school’s energy independence, and Tom Kelly, KyotoUSA’s director, announced that he plans to convert another Berkeley elementary school for the group’s next project. Kelly did not name the school since it has not received approval from the school district yet. 

Lew Jones, the district’s director of facilities, told the Planet after the event that instead of focusing on any one school at the moment, the district was more interested in identifying school sites that could be converted to solar in the future. 

“Rather than doing one school or another, we are doing a more comprehensive study,” Bill Huyett, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District, said Tuesday. “The more solar we are the better. It’s a win-win for the school district. It offers financial advantages by lowering costs and also helps us to set a good example for our students in terms of reducing a carbon footprint.” 

Both Huyett and Jones said that funding for future solar projects could come from several different sources, including the recently approved stimulus package, grants and rebates or ballot measures. 

Jones said that the state education budget crisis would not hamper future solar projects at the school. He called the solar panels at Washington a big success, but admitted that it was still too early to give a detailed account of their financial benefits. 

Kelly said that the photovoltaic system—which is estimated to produce 150,000 kilowatt-hours annually—may cover only 70 percent of the school’s electricity needs, but that it might be enough to cover most of the cost. 

“That happens because the school will generate a lot of high-value electricity in the summer, but use lower-value electricity during the winter,” he said. “We will know at the end of a year when PG&E does a ‘true-up’—that is, compares the school's use of electricity against the school's generation. It could be pretty close.” 

Washington consumed approximately 170,560 kilowatt-hours in energy and paid around $25,505 in electricity costs in 2006. 

Most of the $1.17 million that was raised to fund the project—60 percent came from the state Department of School Construction, 20 percent from a PG&E rebate and 20 percent from local school district bonds—has been used up, Jones said, and the remaining amount will go toward paying the architect, contractor and project manager. 

The 480 solar panels laid out on the roof of Washington Elementary last August by Eshone Electric Company have generated more than 31,035 kilowatt-hours of energy so far, according to www.fatspaniel.net, a company that monitors renewable energy. 

“We haven’t got much sun since the panels were installed last fall, but we are hoping that these numbers will accelerate in April,” Kelly said, adding that the 103 kilowatt PV system was expected to reduce 40 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year over the next two decades. 

Kelly said that, since its installation, the system had helped to avoid producing nearly 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, 11 pounds of nitrous oxide and 0.9 pounds of sulfuric oxide. 

“We found out that the panels get dirty really fast and need to be cleaned regularly,” Kelly said. “Leaves, pollen, dust, birds—it’s amazing how much can get pushed over.” 

KyotoUSA’s HELiOS (Helios Energy Lights Our Schools) project has generated interest at the local and national level, Kelly said, and the organization is scheduled to meet with the U.S. Department of Energy Thursday. 

“I hope they try and shape something that will benefit the schools,” Kelly said. “The Department of Energy is getting around $80 billion from the stimulus plan, and that is money that needs to be used quickly. So they are looking at existing projects.” 

At Monday’s event, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said that KyotoUSA’s efforts were right in step with Measure G, Berkeley’s voter-approved ballot initiative that promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2020. 

KyotoUSA also launched a Community Climate Fund this week—a source of funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for local public schools that would be supported by the community. 

For more information on the HELiOS project and the Community Climate Fund, see www.heliosproject.net.