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District plans for solar panels

Similar projects are already underway at several schools in Irvine. They should be completed in mid-November.

October 30, 2010|By Sarah Peters, sarah.peters@latimes.com

IRVINE — The Irvine Unified School District has indentified an untapped resource: 2.5 million square feet of largely unused rooftop space.

Thanks to a 2009 decision by the school board to partner with SunEdison and SPG Solar, that rich supply of space will soon make room for multiple solar panel projects.

Some 16 sites were chosen throughout the district to receive the rooftop panels. Panels are already being installed at the district office at 5050 Barranca Parkway, although on top of vehicle shade structures there.

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Several other locations that have already started installation of the panels are estimated to be complete by mid-November. They are Rancho San Joaquin, Lakeside and Venado middle schools; College Park, Santiago Hills, Turtle Rock and Plaza Vista School elementary schools; and the Early Childhood Learning Center.

The remaining five sites — University and Irvine high schools, Springbrook and Northwood elementary schools and South Lake Middle School — should be complete by the end of the year.

"We really see this as the first step, over many years, to reduce our carbon footprint," Mark Sontag, district coordinator of math and science, said of the partnership which, in a sense, "leases" out rooftop space in exchange for reduced-cost energy rates.

Under terms of the agreement, SunEdison and SPG Solar will build, maintain and insure the solar projects for a term of 20 years, although the district has an option to buy out any of the sites' panels after five years, Sontag explained.

Due to a locked-in, predicable rate increase, the district is estimated to save $225,728 in the project's first year and around $8.5 million over the 20-year term, according to district documents.

"The potential savings is just one reason why the board approved this, but there are actually two reasons," Sontag said. "The first reason was really what we could add to the curriculum for educating students, which of course is our main job as a school district."

Last year, the district piloted a program for sixth-graders to teach the children about various renewable energy sources through hands-on lab activities, such as building miniature windmills and battery-operated cars.

"We just started with basics and created activities that could be done at [the sixth-grade] level," said Battina Pierce, elementary science specialist.

With the success of the pilot, Pierce and other district staff are looking to expand the renewable energy labs to the lower grade levels.

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