by Hannah Burton
photography by Berenice Gonzalez
A glimpse of the future reflects off the surface of 8,880 solar panels recently installed throughout the Bonita Unified School District. The dark mirrored panels have become the District’s latest innovation to clean up its carbon footprint. The solar power trend has taken over a total of 13 campuses, including elementary, middle and high schools located in La Verne and San Dimas.
Financing the sun
SunPower, a leading solar energy saving company located in Anaheim, has been working with BUSD on this $14 million project. Since 2015, the Board of Education has been discussing various options that surround solar power. The District sought a company that would provide multiple benefits considering pricing, maintenance and a guarantee of how much power would be produced. Every year, these campuses use roughly 8.7 million kWh. According to the District’s request for proposal, it is their mission to produce enough energy to lower costs, while not overproducing under rules and tariffs. Through solar panels, 80 percent of each campus is powered. “We wanted to be able to save money through generating our own electricity,” says Ann Sparks, assistant superintendent for business services. “So, that was the main focus of doing it.”
The installation was partially funded by Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) administered by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and Sparks says that the District was able to sell bonds in the market place. BUSD is also receiving funding through Measure AB. The bill provides schools with state funding for construction and modernization of facilities. Though the system is leased, the District will reap large financial benefits. By switching from Southern California Edison (SCE) power to solar, it is estimated that the District will save approximately $26.8 million over the next 30 years. Robert Harrison, BUSD director of maintenance and operations, says that each year the District spends $1.5 million on electrical costs. With solar energy, approximately $1 million a year will be saved. During the first 17 years after installation, savings will pay off the Clean Renewable Energy Bonds. The amount of savings between years 18 and 30 is projected at $22.8 million. “Once those are paid off, all of the savings will come to the Bonita Unified School District,” Sparks says
Capturing the sun
Installation ground breaking took place during the summer of 2016, with project completion coming January 2017. With careful preparation, each school site development takes three months to complete. Installation options are there as carport, lunch, play, view or shade structures or being roof mounted, depending on the needs or design of each campus. Not only do the panels provide electricity, the structure itself offers a shaded area for students and teachers. “It’s a neat system for us to save money, but it’s a benefit to the kids. They get to park in the shade here, they get to play in the shade at many of the schools, which is really nice during the summer, so it’s a benefit all around,” Harrison says, as he glances around the Bonita High School student parking lot. Every panel array was designed to support a school’s individual energy needs. “These panels capture about 25 percent of the energy that’s coming from the sun, and that goes into the grid,” Harrison says.
SunPower has guaranteed that the solar panels will last 25 years. To keep up with maintenance, the company is scheduled to clean the panels one to two times a year, with general checkups when needed. “It’s a pretty durable system,” Harrison says. They can take a hit from a softball, but SunPower said maybe not a hard ball.”
Though the District experienced brief protests about the solar panels from residents behind Ramona Middle School (blocked views prompted the District to make adjustments), Sparks says that this project is a way to show the community that the District is trying to be energy and environmentally aware. “I think for the community, we’re being energy efficient and energy conscious. Solar is clean energy, so I think that’s a benefit to the community, and also because we will be saving money. I think indirectly that benefits the community too because we’re able to put more resources into our schools.”
Once the panels are up and working, SunPower is providing the District with Energy Information Software (EIS), a program to show each school’s energy savings and how that fluctuates day by day. Sparks says that this information will later be incorporated into school curricula to teach students about solar energy. Because students can see and touch what they are learning, the solar panels have become a perfect hands-on lesson plan. By conserving energy and using it as an educational tool, Bonita Unified is working hard to shape a brighter future.