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.

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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