Antioch school district hopes to save millions by going solar

By James Ott

Antioch’s school district could save millions in energy costs and gain funding for new education initiatives if it decides to go with a plan to add solar panels to it’s school sites.

Three companies combined to give a presentation about the benefits of solar to the school board at their March 27 meeting. After the presentation the board voted to allow them to do a feasibility study and secure $30 million in bonds from the state that would help pay for the solar panels.

Bob Redlinger, a senior manager at 25-year-old solar company SunPower led the talks, saying that the school could save nearly $70 million in energy costs over the next 25 years from installing it’s solar panels. After paying $34 million back in bonds to pay for the construction and maintenance of the panels the district could expect a $35 million net savings to their general fund, Redlinger said. After that, he said that the district will continue to save millions in energy costs and have schools that are energy independent.

Redlinger presented a mock-up of Deer Valley High School as an example of how SunPower’s solar panels may be implemented into Antioch schools. Solar panels would be placed on the roof of the school and over parking lots and outdoor assembly areas to provide shade in addition to power. The initial energy production of the solar system could produce 2,110,619 kilowatts and hour and pick up 76 percent of the large schools’ entire energy usage. Increasing the size and efficiency of the system could do even better, according to Redlinger’s presentation, making the school entirely energy independent and erasing the entire $457,927 energy bill the district pays to run high school each year.

Steve Nielsen of financial consultant company MuniBond Solar would handle financing for the solar project and said that Antioch Unified could get the entire program going with no “out of pocket” expenses. This is possible because the district has applied for $30 million in Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, (QZABs) through the California Department of Energy. $98 million in QZABs were authorized by the state in January of this year to help pay for alternative energy projects at California schools.

Nielsen said he expects the QZABs to come with a 17 to 20 year term with a low interest rate of around 1.5 percent. He praised the QZABs simple structure and low cost.

“These [QZABs] are somewhat comparable to a really low fixed-rate home mortgage,” said Neilsen. “And it doesn’t require a direct repayment from taxpayers because payments will come out of the district’s general fund.”

If the district decides to go with SunPower and MuniBond Solar they will also get the services of Project Lead The Way, (PLTW), – a company that specializes in developing so called STEM, (science, technology, engineering and math), curricula for middle and high schools.

Dr. Duane Crum represented PLTW at the meeting and said that his company “provides rigorous, hands-on curricula and intense professional development in STEM disciplines.” STEM education has become popular in K-12 schools as the world economy moves to more technology laden jobs that require a more educated workforce.

Crum said that PLTW has over 500,000 students taking it’s courses in all 50 states including some at Antioch High School. As part of the solar panel project PLTW will develop and implement STEM academies with hopes to better educate Antioch youth in those disciplines. SunPower also plans to link it’s solar panels to modules and labs where students can conduct physical experiments.

Crum said that PLTW will provide up to $3.1 million in matched in-kind funding to pay for the program.

If the school board decides to move forward and approves a contract with the three companies at the June 12 board meeting, Redlinger said that the they can start the design and development of the project that same month. They then will began construction in July 2013 while simultaneously training teachers and implementing the PLTW STEM curriculum.

If all goes well the plan is to energize the solar panels as early as the mid-year, 2014.

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