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Apodaca: Irvine Unified casts a ray of inventiveness

December 08, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

Say you're an educator and you had an opportunity to save money, do something beneficial for the environment and provide an excellent teaching opportunity for students.

It would be a no-brainer, right?

So why isn't every school district in California racing to imitate Irvine Unified's successful solar panel project?

The answer is that too few school districts are run like IUSD. That is, they lack the vision, flexibility and willingness to experiment, and the entrepreneurial framework. And yes, I'm using the word "entrepreneurial" in reference to public schools, for it is a quality considered rare in any public-sector setting, but which all districts would do well to encourage.

In an age of extreme austerity and discord in our public school system, Irvine Unified's solar panel project provides a clear example of what can be accomplished by a group of smart, committed employees who have been set free to figure out a better way to do something and are given the support they need to make it happen.

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IUSD's solar story started in 2008, when some district employees attended a conference in Norway, paid for by the nonprofit Energy Coalition, to learn more about energy conservation.

The group came back with lots of new ideas for trimming energy consumption and costs, but didn't yet have a specific plan to pursue solar power, figuring such a big step would include major start-up costs. But after extensive research, they learned of an opportunity to partner with the solar energy company SunEdison, which would require no out-of-pocket costs for the district.

Under the deal, SunEdison would own all the equipment and be responsible for its installation and maintenance. IUSD would buy the power generated from the solar grid at a significant savings compared to its existing utility costs. Concurrently, the district would implement conservation measures, from cardboard box recycling to asking teachers to forgo unnecessary classroom refrigerators and microwave ovens.

One of the niftiest features of the proposal was the plan to work the solar project into the district's curriculum. The purpose wasn't advocacy, said Mark Sontag, IUSD's curriculum coordinator and one of the solar project's champions.

"The intent is awareness," he said. "The fiscal savings are one thing, but it's the way you have students look at their interaction with the natural world."

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