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Solar Master Plan

In June 2006, KyotoUSA and Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) management met to discuss the possibility of installing renewable energy systems on Washington Elementary. That first meeting – and all subsequent meetings – followed a path similar to the one other school districts in the state have taken or are likely to take when considering an investment in generating clean, renewable electricity from school rooftops and parking lots. BUSD’s attitude toward installing renewable energy systems went from caution and doubt in 2006 to a change of mind and heart that resulted in the District’s decision to put solar panels on Washington Elementary and then add $7 million dollars for solar projects to a general obligation bond request in 2010, which passed with the overwhelming support of Berkeley voters.

The path to energy conservation, energy reduction, and energy generation (3Es) is a challenging one for most school districts – fraught with concerns about diminishing operating budgets, up-front costs of new equipment, time and effort busy district staff must expend to oversee a project, as well as doubts about whether a solar project will “pencil out.” Many school districts, however, are recognizing that energy savings and electricity generation can result in significant benefits to a district’s financial health, and can be a gateway to educational opportunities and an improved local economy.

In working on our first successful solar project with BUSD, we learned a number of important lessons. The most important one was that trying to get solar panels installed on a single public school is always going to be challenging.  We often meet students or parents who are helping a school to “go green” and would like to see renewable energy be part of that plan. They demonstrate a high level of enthusiasm, organization, and energy – characteristics that are remarkably valuable to the education of our children, the health of their schools, and the future of our society.

Nevertheless, school districts generally develop Facilities Master Plans (FMPs) that identify the construction that will take place in the district over a 5- to 10-year period. This hampers a district’s ability to respond favorably to a community’s request for a renewable energy project at an individual school. Much of the funding for projects described in an FMP is likely to have been approved by local voters in the form of a General Obligation bond that will only pay for the projects described in the FMP.  The BUSD experience showed us that we had to integrate solar projects into a district’s overall long-term construction plans if we were going to see solar installed on schools throughout a district.

In 2009, KyotoUSA and our fiscal sponsor, the Sequoia Foundation, were awarded a Solar America Showcase grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The technical assistance grant enabled us to develop a Solar Master Plan (SMP) that could be integrated into any school district’s Facilities Master Plan.  Over the next two years, the National Renewable Energey Laboratory (NREL), KyotoUSA, and our school district partners (Berkeley, Oakland, and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts) worked together to develop a Solar Master Plan for each of the districts.

A requirement of the Solar America Showcase award was that the grantee had to commit to installing at least 250 kilowatts (kW) within the districts. We made a “good faith” commitment to do so. As of August 2015, more than 4 MW of solar has been installed at these three school districts.

Our school district partners – all facilities directors and staff – provided important guidance on the information we would need to integrate plans for photovoltaic (PV) systems into an FMP. We received an incredible amount of donated technical assistance and support in the development of the SMPs from organizations, companies, and individuals. As a result, we have assembled a document that covers every aspect of what a district should consider as it begins to move away from relying on increasingly expensive utility-provided electricity toward its own self-generated, clean, renewable solar energy.

The first eight chapters of this Solar Master Plan address the full range of topics that a district must consider in planning for solar energy. Chapter Nine is a Case Study on a student-initiated project installed at San Ramon Valley Unified School District in October 2011.

Any California public school district can use this SMP as a template. Data and studies specific to the participating districts are covered in Chapters One, Three, and Four. The remaining chapters are relevant to all districts.

Chapter One discusses “benchmarking” of the district’s energy use through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager energy management tool. Every district – regardless of its current or future plans for renewable energy – should be aware of its energy consumption and energy costs so that it can make energy-efficiency improvements and encourage better conservation behaviors at its schools.

Chapter Two discusses what makes a school building a good candidate for PV installation and offers information on tools that can help in evaluating a building’s potential for hosting a solar array.

Chapter Three presents a structural analysis of the roofs of several schools in the district. To prepare this analysis, NREL hired a local structural engineer to determine whether, based on the architectural drawings, the buildings could support the added loads of a PV system. California public schools have very strict building codes, administered by the Division of the State Architect (DSA), which can make any construction project a challenge. The reports in this chapter provide an overview of issues that DSA will consider when looking at plans for roof-mounted PV systems.

Chapter Four provides detailed information on the district’s electricity consumption and energy costs, the total amount of PV that each district facility is capable of hosting, and the amount of PV that each facility needs to reduce its electricity costs to the minimum charge. Also included are the estimated costs, savings, and electricity generation of each PV system, as well as the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions avoided and renewable energy credits (RECs) earned. All of these criteria are calculated for the district as a whole and for each facility individually. Aerial imagery identifies the buildings and parking areas appropriate for PV installation and is the basis for estimating the amount of space available for the PV systems.

Chapter Five provides an overview of today’s solar technology, how it works, net metering rules, monitoring systems, and ways to ensure that a PV system provides maximum efficiency and output throughout the 25 to 40 years during which the system can be expected to generate electricity.

Chapter Six provides a thorough, well-researched Design-Build contract template that covers all aspects of procuring a commercial-scale PV system. This chapter explains that school districts will achieve the best pricing and best overall value when using a well-constructed Request for Proposals and seeking public bids rather than sole sourcing its PV project.

Chapter Seven discusses financing options for acquiring PV systems. Financing can be the single biggest challenge in acquiring PV; however, costs – for PV systems and for financing – continue to come down and are increasingly within reach for school districts. The chapter describes in detail the two primary methods of acquiring PV systems – district ownership and third-party ownership (Power Purchase Agreement).

Chapter Eight covers rate/tariff structures that are associated with the delivery of electricity from the utility to each school. Understanding how tariffs work and how they are applied will assist a district in determining which tariffs are most favorable for a specific school even if a PV system is not yet contemplated.

Chapter Nine describes how a Monte Vista High School junior, Julia Mason, led the San Ramon Valley Unified School District to install 3.3 megawatts of PV throughout the district. Julia began her advocacy effort with an attempt to get district officials to install solar at her high school. Demonstrating commitment, patience, and a lot of heart, Julia and her classmates were able to overcome the district’s initial hesitance and eventually persuaded the school board to move forward. The board’s journey took them from concerns about whether the district could “afford to install solar” to the point where all board members eventually agreed that the district could “not afford to not install solar.”

Chapter Nine does not provide a systematic formula for achieving success in a district, but it demonstrates the types of concerns that arise and how they were addressed. It is our hope that Julia’s story will inspire school districts to start on a path toward reducing their energy consumption and producing all the electricity needed to operate their schools.