School District Banks on the Sun 

Mount Diablo Unified is offsetting state budget cuts with a massive solar project that will save the district about $6 million a year.

As schools across California have faced deep budget cuts over the past few years, one East Bay school district has been banking on an innovative plan to raise money for essential education programs while helping fight climate change at the same time. The plan by Mount Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County is also groundbreaking. By the end of this summer, the district will have installed more than 28,000 solar panels at 51 school sites, making it the largest school district in the world to get most of its power from the sun. Starting next school year, the 12.1 megawatts of solar power generated by the project also is expected to save the district more than $200 million over the next 30 years.

"We're going to be generating about $6 million per year in these obviously difficult financial times in the state of California," said district Superintendent Steven Lawrence. "That's huge. It's equivalent to about one hundred teaching positions."

The massive solar project is expected to slash Mount Diablo's annual electricity costs by about 90 percent. To pay for the project, Lawrence said, the district used funds from the $348 million Measure C bond initiative, passed by voters in 2010, and from the federal government's Clean Renewable Energy Bonds program. He said the district's 33,000 students should benefit for decades to come, because savings from the project will help Mount Diablo Unified keep programs that might otherwise be on the chopping block — like music, arts, and sports. "It just puts funds in our general fund that allows us to continue programs for our students — be it classroom programs or extracurricular programs," he said.

Three years ago, Mount Diablo Unified officials put the large solar-power contract out to bid. The winning $80 million bid came from San Jose-based SunPower Corporation. SunPower's plan was to take advantage of the abundant sunlight in Contra Costa County, while also providing relief for motorists who often search in vain for a shady parking spot. So the company built parking shade structures with solar panels on top at each of the district's campuses. "They provide shade and protection for the cars," said Howard Wenger, president of SunPower, as he motioned to the gray steel shade canopies topped by the latest in solar photovoltaic technology in the parking lot at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek. "They don't take any parking spaces at all and it just improves the parking area here.

"This is by far the largest school system we've ever done and that has ever been done, I believe, in the world," Wenger continued. "Instead of heating the cars up, we're converting that sunlight into electricity with our panels."

SunPower has also committed to helping promising math, science, and engineering students explore careers in renewable energy. "It's a great example for the students and we're going to be hiring about forty interns as part of this program," Wenger said.

Local students attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this month under a cloudless sky at Northgate High were enthusiastic about the program. "I hope to go into a field where I can work with sustainable technology and move all communities forward to be like the Northgate community," said Tiffany Lay, Northgate student body vice president.

SunPower also projects a windfall in environmental benefits. The company estimates that Mount Diablo Unified's solar panels will offset nearly 400,000 tons of greenhouse gases over their 30-year lifespan. That's the equivalent of taking more than 70,000 cars off the road.

Northgate student Adam Avalos also liked the idea of his school being a clean-energy leader. "It's fun to see our school, and the nation, take positive steps in renewable clean energy," he said.

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