Solar units may top school lots

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that all the trees in parking lots at eight San Luis Coastal campuses could be removed. Some of the trees, not all of the trees, will be cut down.

Solar-panel-covered structures will sprout on the San Luis Obispo High School parking lot and at seven other campuses if San Luis Coastal Unified School District officials can get the plans approved.

The proposal calls for putting in carport-like structures with solar panels on top.

Students, faculty and parents would park underneath, essentially using the airspace above cars as an energy producer.

The cost to taxpayers is expected to be nothing, and the project would eventually lead to a savings of up to $6 million to $8 million in energy costs over the next 20 years, according to Brad Parker, the district’s facilities director.

Some trees will have to be removed, Parker said.

The district is working on the environmental reports for the project and hoping the plans will get approved by the State Architect Office, and that the project will be under way in the spring.

Parker said the district signed a letter of intent with San Luis Obispo-based REC Solar to develop the solar carports after the district solicited proposals to install solar arrays in a way that would cost taxpayers nothing.

“This is a power purchase agreement whereby the company finances, designs, constructs, installs, operates and maintains the photovoltaic arrays,” he said.

The district will not lay out the estimated $14 million cost for the project, Parker said, but instead agrees to buy all of the energy that the panels produce.

The savings to the district would come through the fact that the energy cost from the panels would not increase over time.

“Generally, they size these systems so it will provide 85 percent of our consumption,” Parker said.

Even though the schools are largely closed during the summer months, he said the electricity produced then can be sold back to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power grid.

Then, the district can receive credit in the more overcast months of the school year when the solar panels might not keep up with demand.

REC and SunEdison, which will be the eventual owner of the solar arrays, get tax write-offs and depreciation that make the projects feasible.

REC has installed such systems in the city of South Gate near Los Angeles and for the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County, according to company spokeswoman Isabelle Christensen.

The estimate is that the arrays would be installed at eight of the school district’s 18 campuses, Parker said.

Some campuses have small, oddly shaped, or almost nonexistent parking lots where the arrays may not work.

The tall structures would have a solar-powered night light under the canopy that would light the parking areas during the evening.

For some lots, trees would have to go.

“We will have some shading issues where we have to remove some trees,” he said. “It’s a necessary evil.”

Christensen said that San Luis Coastal will buy power from SunEdison through the power purchase agreement.

“Depending on how much energy (San Luis) Coastal wants to offset and the energy price that they want to lock into, we will size the system accordingly,” she said.