Timing Right For Solar Project at Calif. School District

PETALUMA, Calif. —The Petaluma City School District in Sonoma County is working on a one-megawatt solar project, comprised of a 675-kilowatt system installed on parking lot canopies at its Casa Grande High School campus and a 385-kilowatt system installation on canopies at its Petaluma High School campus parking lot.
The district tapped the expertise of TerraVerde Renewable Partners to get the project off the ground, and Cupertino Electric Inc. of San Jose, Calif., is the contracting developer.
The solar facilities will offset the school’s electricity purchases by 60 percent, or about $200,000 annually. The cost of the project runs about $5.4 million, which is financed though roughly $2 million in school district general bonds and $3.3 million in federal stimulus “Build America” bonds.
Additionally, PG&E provided a grant for electric vehicle charging stations, powered by the solar facility, at Casa Grande High School; Cupertino Electric and TVRP are donating the installation of the stations.
The project also enhances the schools’ career-oriented Tech Ed programs. TVRP is providing an outside solar professional development organization to work with eight students and four faculty members from various disciplines. “They are going to be tasked with working with this professional curriculum developer to figure out how to integrate solar into the construction, drafting, math and science curriculum for the district,” says Rick Brown, president of TVRP.
TVRP Partnership Key to Project Success
Discussions between the school district and TVRP began last February and construction is expected to conclude by the end of December, with the facility up and running by the third or fourth week in January. “The vision and professionalism of the Petaluma staff and school board is one of the reasons why this project has gotten going so quickly,” says Brown. “They are deliberative in an efficient way.”
 “We had taken a number of looks at our campuses to see if solar would work well on them and because of the roof orientations, those previous plans didn’t pan out,” explains Steve Bolman, Deputy Superintendent of Business and Administration for the school district. “We did want to look at solar one more time, so we hired TerraVerde to look at opportunities for the district. They came back with a plan that worked well and used the available incentives, and also helped us address budget issues in the near term and long-range savings over time,” he explains. “With the methods of funding we have and the incentives, we will actually have positive cash flow, including the PG&E incentives, right from the very beginning.”
TVRP worked with the district and selected Cupertino Electric as the company best positioned to deliver the desired objectives. It also put together the needed financing. “We kind of serve as both a project manager and as an expert negotiator on their behalf,” says Brown.
School districts make up of about half of TVRP’s current 15 projects. “At this point in California, between the incentives that you can get from your local utility, in most cases, and the difference between the cost of financing solar and the costs school districts are paying for electricity today, they end up with net savings pretty much from day one,” explains Brown. “This is a little different from a few years ago when the cost of installing solar was a whole lot higher.”