Construction has started on large banks of solar panels at two of Petaluma's high schools, and when the projects are complete in January, the schools should rake in savings of $200,000 per year by harnessing the power of the sun.

On Monday, Oct. 11, crews from a company called Cupertino Electric started work at Casa Grande and Petaluma High Schools on metal awnings that will cover parts of the schools' parking lots. Once the 13-14 foot tall awnings, similar to car ports, are completed, solar panels will be installed on top of them.

"Right now they are drilling for all the underground utilities," said Kyle Manford, facilities manager at Petaluma City Schools. Crews will try to drill footings for posts and start welding the metal frames of the structures before winter rains start, he said.

The awnings provide more efficient solar power than roof-mounted panels because they can be positioned more precisely.

"You can aim the panels southwest, where they need to be, rather than trying to find the perfect fit on buildings," said Manford.

The awnings will cover the majority of Casa Grande's student parking lot, almost all of Petaluma High School's lot, and the center of the staff parking lot at Casa Grande, said Steve Bolman, Petaluma City Schools' head of business and administration.

Parking for students and staff will be confined to nearby streets and auxiliary lots until the lots are expected to open again at the end of January.

"Student parking through the duration of the project will be primarily street parking," said Bolman.

"The kids are encouraged to carpool if they can," said Manford.

Manford said that although students and staff are inconvenienced by the lack of parking, most are excited by the project.

"Things have been going along pretty smooth, especially with the huge amount of displacement we have had," said Manford.

The construction will be financed through a combination of $2 million in school district general bonds and $3.3 million in bonds financed by the federal stimulus, called Build America bonds.

The panels at Casa Grande are capable of producing 675 kilowatts of electricity while the Petaluma High School's panels will produce 385 kilowatts, and together form a one-megawatt system. That will offset the schools' electricity purchases by more than 60 percent per year, and over 20 years will generate enough to offset the annual emissions of over 4,000 vehicles, according to Cupertino Electric's figures.

The school district selected Cupertino Electric this summer to do the work, and the company completed designs over the past month. TerraVerde Renewable Partners is overseeing the installation and financing, and also plans to work with teachers to help them add solar energy to their curriculum.

Manford said that teachers have been working closely with the company on plans to build an electric car charging station at Casa Grande, which they hope to incorporate into the science curriculum.

(Contact Philip Riley at philip.riley@arguscourier.com)