Solar Panels For Schools, Good or Bad?

Work is nearing completion on the $25 million project to install solar panels at five schools in the San Ramon Valley. While designed to save the district money, the project has negatively impacted some residents.

When I told my 4-year-old that most of his last week of swim lessons at 's pool were canceled because of a solar panel installation project, he was less than pleased.

“Why?” he asked.

I told him the school is building a special structure that would make electricity from the sun to power the school; I explained to him that using sunlight to make power was better for the earth, and would help the school save money it could use for other things it needs.

While he could accept doing something better for the planet, he still wasn't thrilled to miss out on his pool time. 

My son is not the only one who has mixed feelings about the unintended negative consequences of this project meant to help our schools.

The solar panels being installed at , , , , and Diablo Vista Middle School, are projected to provide over two-thirds of the electricity required to run those schools.

The solar photovoltaic panels are funded by $25 million in low-interest Qualified School Construction Bonds, made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The money is repayable over about 15 years. The bonds will be offset by about $7 million in California Solar Initiative incentive funding from Pacific Gas & Electric.

Mounted on carport structures in parking lots at the schools (see photos), the panels will also provide shade, and increased lighting and security.

The district told the school board last year that either going solar or continuing as is would both carry a cost. 

In its analysis it said the solar array project represented "the most prudent choice" to manage the district's future power needs. 

It's the costs to local residents that have some upset about the project—like the early closure of Monte Vista's pool (the Town of Danville gave credits to families, like mine, who missed out on swimming lessons as a result).

All five schools also had power outages as the systems were switched over, which affected class registration and other back to school planning.

San Ramon Valley High School's student registration was delayed by one week, creating traffic delays downtown, because it was on the same night as a Hot Summer Nights car show.

The delay was necessary, according to district spokesman, Terry Koehne, because electrical equipment from the 1950s was discovered during the solar panel project at the school and had to be replaced.

Other consequences of the project are more significant for local homeowners. 

The solar panels have changed the aesthetics of some neighborhoods.

Homeowner Rajan Shriwas of San Ramon said he understood the need for the solar installations, despite the project's impact to his home.

Shriwas, who has lived in the Fioli community near Dougherty High School in San Ramon for two years, enjoys the sweeping views from his townhouse's balcony.

His view now also includes the nearly complete solar array at the high school's parking lot down the hill from his home.

Shriwas was unaware the project in the parking lot was for solar panels. Although it blocks his view a bit, he said he's not upset about it overall. He also hasn't heard his fellow neighbors complain about it.

He is concerned about whether he will experience sun reflection from the panels, but he said "if it benefits the schools, people should understand."

Some homeowners in the Alamo Crest subdivision next to Monte Vista High School aren't as understanding.

Several luxury homes sit directly above, or in close proximity to, the solar installation at the school's newer student parking lot.

Some of those residents said they weren't given an opportunity to weigh in on the project that directly affects their homes and neighborhood.

Other neighbors "are pretty upset about it" as well, they said.

School district records show the district solicited public input on the then proposed project in late 2009, and worked with local government and public service agencies, but the Alamo Crest residents say they weren't directly notified about the project.

Additionally, in artistic renderings of the project, trees are shown on the hillside that would buffer the view of the panels for the residents, but no trees are currently there — some said they wanted to see trees planted. 

Whether you embrace the new solar panels or merely tolerate them, the project is a done deal. 

My 4-year-old, like the rest of us, has no choice but to live with the costs, good and bad. His lost week of swim lessons I hope, will ultimately help reduce overall costs to the schools he will attend, and impact to the environment.

For future projects our town considers, what weight should the impact upon individuals have, when weighed against the intended collective benefits to the larger community?

We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments.

For more information about the solar panel project, visit the San Ramon Valley Unified School District's project information page.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the neighborhood near Monte Vista High is called Alamo Creeks, instead of Alamo Crest.

Noelle August 23, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Sorry but those of us who have lived in Alamo for years don't really care about the opinions of the Alamo Creek subdivision! Buy a home across the street from a high school and then complain? They couldn't give those homes away for the first 2 years after they were built! Monte Vista, along with the other SRVUSD high schools are trying to save money (in the long run). Hopefully, this will help - before this State runs all public education systems right into the ground.
George August 23, 2011 at 04:28 PM
My friends and family were opposed to SRVUSD taking out a 25 million dollar loan, with sketchy ROI that was provided by the consultants and sales people from the solar panel companies to the school districts facilities director who was fired during this debacle. Their obviously overly optimistic numbers say this will take over 20 years just to break even, and it's based upon payback of ever increasing electricity costs that are inflated at best. So when your school district is whining for more money every year, and scaring our families with pink slips and placing empty chairs in front of the schools etc... remind them that they could've saved money by simply saying NO to this eyesore. Although i'm sure the SRVUSD administration being able to tell their friends and colleagues that our school district has "Gone Green" was too much to pass up.
Cristina Laguna Sangiuliano Boa August 23, 2011 at 04:58 PM
It is shocking to realize how selfish human beings can be, even when faced with a choice tha will definitely benefit not only their own communities, but possibly the world in the long run, not to mention their own children's present and future.
Doug August 23, 2011 at 05:08 PM
George is exactly right. The numbers used in the payback analysis on this "investment" were nothing more than wishful thinking so that the SRVUSD could pat each other on the back for a job well done on reducing their carbon footprint. Like most, if not every, green project this "investment" will NEVER pay for itself. Taking the consultant's and solar panel company's numbers at face value is no way to spend our education dollars. Lets not kid ourselves, this is nothing more than a "feel good" project that was a complete waste of money. I never want to hear from our School Board that we need to consider teacher layoffs and cuts in school funding. They have lost all credibility.
Chris August 23, 2011 at 06:55 PM
Let's see, borrow $25 million from the Chinese to create electrical power the most expensive way possible, and have our children pay the Chinese back. How can we trust the govt (and school district surrogates) to spend our our tax dollars, our children's future, and the Chinese bond holder monies wisely? What happens if you borrow money, and don't generate a return.....default?? I hope the Chinese don't read this! :-)
Chris August 23, 2011 at 06:57 PM
It's not free money Cristina. Our children have to pay it back
Chris August 23, 2011 at 07:00 PM
This is not saving our society money Noelle. Solar is among the most expensive ways possible to generate electrical power. It may seem like "free money" to you, but it's actually borrowed money (from the Chinese) that is being used to "save" money in a very expensive way.
rah August 23, 2011 at 07:08 PM
I think it is great. We need to move toward solar power, both businesses and homes. The sun is a constant source, foreign oil is not.
Chris August 23, 2011 at 07:14 PM
I encourage you to buy solar panels for your home without government subsidies if you so desire. But please don't ask our country to borrow money, or divert public resources to this sort of waste.
Doug August 23, 2011 at 08:00 PM
Like Chris said, invest your own money with no subsidies. There is a reason why solar power projects have such long payback period even using specious logic and overly optimistic pricing assumptions. Solar power, by all objective measures, is very expensive, very inefficient and is a long way from competing on price with fossil fuel sources. The District will likely never get its money back. I hope Rah, Christina and others feels better about themselves using money that could have been put much better use...like educating our children and upgrading other school facilities in our school district. What a boondoggle!
Chris August 23, 2011 at 08:48 PM
We should all remember at election time that our government is spending our money wastefully. But what else can you expect from people that are spending other people's money. Sadly, that perspective applies to something like 50% of the US population that pays little in tax, but authorizes the spending at the ballot box. All kinds of spending sounds great if it costs you little or nothing. God help our children that will pay the piper for our imprudent ways.
Michael August 23, 2011 at 09:42 PM
At the freshman parent night at Cal High they put up a panel of students, who were supposedly informed about the project. They were paid $500 a week to attend classes on solar power, yet they seemed unable to explain what the acronym QSCB meant. And confused bonds and grants. And really had no idea how the array itself functioned.
Michael August 23, 2011 at 09:44 PM
Doesn't seem like the best way to spend taxpayer money...
Michael August 23, 2011 at 09:56 PM
4-5 students at Cal High. They said it was an internship, but it seemed like it was all learning in the classroom/propagandization rather than actually working.
Chris August 23, 2011 at 10:58 PM
Why are we paying children to go to school? Why are we teaching classes on solar panels. Why don't we teach one on coffee makers? These are simple low tech products. Nothing much to learn at all as far as the technology goes. Of course indoctrination into all things "green" is the real point. Some assail those that want to shrink government need only look to "fake" education to know why we don't to give the tumor sustanance.
Chris August 23, 2011 at 11:10 PM
It's all about our "public servants" spending other people's money. They aren't accountable for costs. In fact, they probably think they are going to be applauded for this debacle. And from the point of view of someone who kicks the cost on down the road...they probably will get votes for their trouble. Sounds like those who enabled Fannie and Freddie; S&P; and Wall Street; S&L's in the 80's; and refi's in the 2000's. Live it up now...."don't worry about tomorrow"...Alfred E Newman. "what me worry?"
Chris August 23, 2011 at 11:27 PM
$20 billion dollars borrowed from the Chinese; Paid back by our children. Mostly Wasted; Thank you Obama & Congress 2008 to 2010 "Qualified Zone Academy Bonds" (QZABs) can be used to carry out much-needed school renovations and repairs as well as other improvements. Through the establishment of Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs), school districts with low-income populations (35% or more free and reduced lunch) can save on interest costs associated with financing school renovations and repairs as well as other improvements. NEF provides the 10% match to allow you to form the required business partnership to expand students' learning opportunities and help schools prepare students for graduation, workforce and college.
RWCook August 24, 2011 at 12:48 AM
I find it interesting the number of parents that had no idea this was going on. I don't recall mention of it in the daily email updates from SRVHS last year. I happened to ask my son what they're building on the senior lot, then we got an email about the power outage at registration. According to the SRV District website $27 million spent to save $25 million over the course of about 16 years. The only way the thing breaks even is the artificially low interest rate subsidized by federal tax dollars (borrowing actually) and PG&E credits totaling $7 million spread out over the first 5 years. No business would make this "investment".
Danville Resident August 24, 2011 at 06:23 PM
Michael, how about addressing your questions to the school board and or the folks @ SunPower instead of picking on a group of 16 year olds who were up there doing their best to relay to general public an overview of whats going on. WTF
Chris August 24, 2011 at 06:32 PM
I don't think Michael was picking on the kids. I think Michael was condemming their exploitation by the governent and their surrogates at Sunpower, and SRVUSD. We all know that it's not the kids fault that they were offered and accepted $15 or $20/hour for doing nothing except listening to government funded "reeducation" (reference Chairman Mao)
Danville Resident August 24, 2011 at 06:49 PM
Hey Chris, I'd urge you and who ever else might want to gain a further understanding of the experience the kids had with SunPower over the summer is to take the time and meet and speak with them... the program they were involved with was much more then becoming mouth pieces for the district. The district should involve more local business's to become involved with our students and provide them with real life business experience such as these kids had.
Chris August 24, 2011 at 07:52 PM
Danville Resident, Most respectfully to you: I only need to know: 1) that Sunpower feeds at the trough of the government. 2) That spending for solar panels is debt we and our children have to repay (to the Chinese and subject to rising rates), 3) there are much less expensive ways to generate power; 4) that if we are going to incur government expense their are far better uses that solar panels. There is no point in raising these points with people whose livlihood depends on government spending. I've tried many times. The conversation usually devolves into them resorting to name calling in response to what I believe are logical questions about costs/benefits and tradeoffs. So there you have it...We have a society that includes those that feed off the government, and thost that produce for the government. When those feed outvote those that produce, the USA is finished. If you are referring to me speaking to the kids (which I think you are), I have been a PEP teacher (drug/alcohol teacher in k-6). However, I'm sure you are aware that parents are not welcome on high school campuses in a teaching capacity. I'd love to share my point of view as a manufacturing business owner with high school kids. i'm sure that I would not be welcome....Interesting isn't it (come to think of it) that Sunpower is paid by the government and welcomed with open arms by SRVHSD to prostelitize, but I am persona non-grata.
Michael August 24, 2011 at 08:51 PM
Having actually spoken with the students, they all find it to be an excellent experience. And they are all now incredibly for the program. But very few knew that it was actually costing money, that it was subsidized, etc. But hey, I would take that job. Sit in for $500 a week and listen. It's not their fault: it's a great deal for them. But my question is as to whether a government organization should be paying for an expensive, and not terribly neutral piece of education for these children. Nothing against them: it was smart for getting involved and taking advantage of the situation. And all of the students in the program were actually quite capable. But their grasp of the situation was not what it should have been, if the education they had gone through was worth its salt.
Michael August 24, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Furthermore I would contend that this is not a legitimate business environment. Sure, it's OK if they are informed that this is all based on government spending, an d may or may not be sustainable. But they were all under the impression that this was a blatantly positive move. If these kids want to go and get involved at kinko's, or even at this company, they need tio ahve a good understanding of the business model. It seemed that none of them actualily understood that it was simply due to government charity that the business existed. I don't think this is a good local business experience for these children to have. It implants in their heads that it is somehow profitable to send children to learn about the solar arrays, and that costs are insignificant. I'd rather have them intern at a small restaurant: at least there is a clear balance sheet.
Chris August 24, 2011 at 10:33 PM
Amen to all the Michael has to say. I would add that it's abusive for 16 year olds to be fed an SunPower infomericial paid by the government as legitimate education as supposedly provided by the public school The kids probably think that what their trusted "teachers" provide are "true facts"; and/or both sides of the question. I'll bet this isn't the first time time they have been fed a political point of view instead of a real education.
Kim Lonie August 26, 2011 at 12:39 AM
I find it ironic that the majority of the comments made above said that SRVUSD was using $'s to pay for this project that could have been used for salaries. Capitol Improvement Funds CAN NOT be used for anything but facilities improvements...PERIOD. The school districts (and cities for that matter) have to use those types of funds to upgrade or improve their facilities. NONE of the money used for these projects comes out of the same pot as the salaries. Yes, the money was paid to the Chinese, but have you seriously looked at the cost of these panels mad in the US? They would have cost our kids almost triple or quadruple the amount. I'm thinking that SRVUSD did a great job getting the best price. Yes, they may be ugly, but how many of you look for shade when you go to the schools? There's not much. These structures not only provide energy, but also shade and when you get into your HOT car, crank up the A/C to cool down, you are wasting petroleum (most of which comes from the Middle East) and producing carbon emissions. How many of you have second or third loans out on your home? Many of which are used for improvements.
Pi September 02, 2011 at 12:59 AM
Speaking of home loans, I don't buy the argument that 20 years to break even on $25 million is a bad investment. That's a pretty good ROI if you ask me - way better than any of you are doing on your 30-year mortgages. And at that point, future energy costs for the school will be substantially less; in another 20 years, the savings will show significant value. So what if your kids won't be in the school by then - think long term for the community. This is a MUCH better option than doing nothing. Where is the value in just continuing to pay the PG&E thugs with ZERO ROI?
J Hunts September 02, 2011 at 02:18 AM
All this debate seems to be more growing pains to the reasoning benifit to the most taxpayers and the facts are the state has passed green legislation that installations for" green jobs "will not be stopped by singular or small groups of negative change toward our growing costs to provide education dollars to use as these dollars are as we all know even more scarce evident as to the reasoning to seek alternative power sources to answer proactive rising costs of energy. So be it down the line we find solar was not the whole answer we can incorporate further wind energy ,wave farms, natural gas, algae diesel,concentration magnified photo voltaics, or even gum oil tree oil, or superconducter Hydrocarbine generation or any other new upcoming fuel sources Proactive, power the answers to our education dollar costs escalation. either we make a proactive change or we play the reactive part of the problem.
J Hunts September 02, 2011 at 02:45 AM
I wrote allot more about EIR reports done prior to the PG &E paid portions to installations which the public didnt have to come up with funding for and the federal incentives made to & by the state for the work & the jobs to the economy which are trickle down benifit to all & to businesses that support such projects and well all benifit even beyond the kids.I got futher tolstoyed so you get a picture answer to the problem.


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