JAN 2016
How One School District Saved a Half Million Dollars in Three and a Half Years

Solar carports at Irvine High School in Southern California

It was 2009 when math and science coordinator Mark Sontag first got involved with helping his school evaluate solar energy as a way of reducing energy costs. Little did he know he’d go on to help shepherd more than two dozen such solar installations in his district. He was so good at it in fact that after Mark retired, the district asked him to serve as a consultant.  Last week we caught up with Mark to ask how he did it and how things have been going. We also asked what advice he’d give to school districts considering solar.

So how did this all get started, Mark?

At the time the 2008 recession was picking up steam. The school’s director of maintenance and operations had been tasked with a district-wide conservation plan. The district had already put certain conservation measures in place, but we were noticing that in some locations people were doing things like installing personal refrigerators in classrooms. Things like that. So it started with individual measures — just helping faculty members understand the impact of their actions and that classroom space isn’t a personal lounge. From there, we wanted to take a look at other cost savings measures and started looking at renewable energy as an option.

And how has it gone? What’s been the outcome?

The solar installations have performed magnificently. We’re very pleased with how things are going. Within 42 months of the first solar project launching, we’d saved about a half million dollars. Actually we no longer even refer to the money piece as “savings.” We refer to it as “avoided costs.” Our first solar project went active in August of 2010 after which we brought more projects online in rapid succession. Now there are a whole host of sites whose five-year anniversary will be happening in a month or so. Last December, the school approved solar carports for two new sites. Those projects will be completed in 2016, which will bring our total to 25 sites with either carport or rooftop solar or both. All told, we’ll have over six megawatts of generating power.

What did your district want to understand before starting these projects?

There were really three parts of the puzzle: what are the potential avoided costs of installing solar, what are the environmental benefits, and finally how do we make sure students and their families understand the benefits of renewable versus nonrenewable energy? Once we had a plan in place that addressed all of that, it was easier to scale it out to additional projects. 

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to schools considering solar?

Careful sizing is my number one recommendation. It’s important to get the sizing of each system just right. It may be financially beneficial for some systems to be big enough to produce some extra power in the summertime, but you should also look closely at what that size will do over a full 12 month period because you’ll generally only get paid wholesale rates if the system generates more energy than you need. Our district is buying every bit of the power these systems produce, so we’re always interested in the financials of differently sized systems and how that plays out on the balance sheet.

That brings up an important point, which is that your district is using power purchase agreements to go solar. Can you explain? 

Power purchase agreements (PPAs) allow our district to buy the solar energy from SunEdison without actually owning or renting any of the equipment. This approach had several advantages for us. Most importantly, there were no up-front costs. We also didn’t have to add staff because we don’t have to worry about maintenance or upkeep of the systems. SunEdison takes care of all that. The PPA approach also let us lock in our energy prices for long periods at good rates.

California’s net metering policy means your solar systems are hooked up to the power grid and the utility pays for any excess energy. Did this policy play a role in deciding to move forward with these projects?

Net metering certainly is a benefit for schools, particularly in the summer because any excess electricity can be valuable at that time of year when it’s fed back into the grid. This was definitely a checkmark in the “pros” column for us.

How has it been working with your utility company on these projects?

If I was going to summarize our experience, I’d say it’s been an ongoing conversation with w/ Southern California Edison (SCE). They certainly haven’t been an obstacle, but I wouldn’t say they’ve been particularly encouraging either. I think they would be well served to partner with the state’s Public Utility Commission to make sure solar incentives continue. There are lots of new homes being built in our area and the chances of getting a new power plant built are pretty much zero, so it’s in their interest to help people understand their options. I also think SCE should introduce a robust pilot program for energy storage for homes, schools, and other public buildings. There needs to be a shift in thinking away from programs that try to control demand for power during peak periods. Those haven’t been that successful. 

How do these solar projects play out at the student level?

Our first priority was the curriculum piece. We developed clean energy curricula for 5th and 6th graders. It covers both the advantages and the challenges of renewable energy. It struck me that sixth graders are eligible to vote in just six years and it’s part of a school’s mandate to create an intelligent electorate, so we wanted to be sure that we covered both the pros and the cons of different forms of energy. The shuttering of San Onofre Nuclear plant in our area gives us a lot of opportunity to discuss energy as well.

Do you see a difference in how students approach the subject of renewable energy now versus when you first started?

Yes. Now it’s one of the go-to topics for the kids. They know a lot more about it. They’re interested in it. They have a sense of responsibility about it.

Any final words of wisdom for school districts considering solar?

Do the conservation work first. Energy audits and energy efficiency measures make a big difference. At the heart of it all, you could have the biggest solar array in the world but if you don’t couple that with responsible energy use, you’re not getting the most out of the system you could. Also, make sure you get a solar system that can show your school’s real-time energy use. That helped us understand our consumption patterns instead of getting that information 30 days afterward. That’s been key for us.