A school district goes solar

Solar San Ramon Valley Unified School District

Solar array at Dougherty Valley High School, in California’s San Ramon Valley Unified School District. Photo courtesy of srvusd.net/solar.

A school district goes solar

By Lisa Chang

My daughter Julia has always loved the ocean. Knowing that Julia shared his passion, Dr. Mark Patterson, a professor of marine biology and close family friend, invited our family to accompany his team of ocean scientists to Bonaire in 2008 to study some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Even then, we could see evidence of coral bleaching and harm from rising ocean temperatures. We asked the scientists what we could do as a family to address climate change and help the coral reefs. “Reduce your carbon footprint. Change your light bulbs at home,” we were told. “That’s pretty much all you can do.”

Back home, our seventh grader James suggested that we hold fundraisers to put up solar panels on our schools. Julia, 17 at the time, loved the idea and started a campaign to get solar up on her high school in Danville, Calif. She enlisted the help of Tom Kelly, founder of KyotoUSA, a Berkeley nonprofit with a mission of helping schools switch to solar power.

Solar was not on our school board’s radar when Julia and Tom approached district staff. The economic downturn had left the school district scrambling to save programs and teachers. The school board proceeded cautiously, leery of any capital outlay that might jeopardize the district budget. Finally, a blue ribbon panel of local stakeholders, including district parents who were experts in energy and law, district staff, and teachers, reviewed the project and decided that it was riskier financially for the district NOT to proceed with the solar project. The San Ramon Valley Unified School District used approximately $25 million of Qualified School Construction Bonds to put up a 3.3mW solar array on six district schools.

The project was an enormous success, far beyond what we had initially dreamed of. In the first four years of operation, the solar array saved the school district an estimated $5.1 million, money that went back into the district’s general fund. The solar panels have reduced CO2 emissions by an estimated 18,000 tons, the equivalent of 39 million miles not driven. The project generated local jobs, as well as wonderful educational opportunities for students, such as SunPower’s “Solar Science Academy,” which teaches students the science behind solar panels.

Our school district was so pleased with the success of the solar project, that five years later, when Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (low interest bonds from a Department of Energy project) became available, the district swiftly acted to finance another 3.3 mW solar array to go up on up to 16 more schools in the district.

Our family has been fortunate to be able to witness first hand how renewable energy has benefited our local economy and our schools, as well as the environment.

Julia is now getting her PhD in marine biology, studying the effects of climate on fisheries and the ocean, and James is studying mechanical engineering, hoping to work in renewable energy.

Lisa Chang is a physician living in Alamo, Calif. She recently retired to devote more time to working on climate solutions.