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Petaluma city schools complete solar project


The Petaluma City Schools district last week celebrated the installation of solar panels at nine of its schools, an eco-friendly project that marked the culmination of a years-long effort to invest in solar energy across all district campuses.

The solar panels, which were installed on shade structures in parking lots and playgrounds, will provide 80 percent of the electricity across those nine campuses, resulting in a $230,000 net annual savings in energy costs, Chief Business Official Chris Thomas said.

Work began in July 2016 to install the solar components at Grant, McDowell, McKinley, McNear, Valley Vista and Penngrove elementary schools, as well as Mary Collins at Cherry Valley, Petaluma Junior High School and San Antonio High School, Thomas said. The project was complete by December, and a ribbon cutting ceremony was held at Valley Vista Elementary School on Feb. 3.

Funding for the $3.3 million project came from a combination of the school’s local bond funds and from Prop. 39, which provides money for energy-related projects in California’s K-12 schools.

In 2010, the district embarked on a $5.4 million project to install solar panels at Casa Grande and Petaluma high schools, an effort that was funded through district facility funds and Build America bonds, Thomas said. The district has seen a $1.4 million savings in energy costs from that project, she said. A solar energy component was also incorporated into the construction of Kenilworth Junior High more than a decade ago, she said.

“The district has had an interest in solar for some time … it’s been a passion for Petaluma City Schools to find a great way to provide clean energy,” she said.

The district will see a savings of more than $500,000 each year as a result of the solar components across the 12 campuses, though figures for the total percentage of solar energy produced across the district were not available, she said. Money saved from the reduction in energy bills will be used to offset the increasing costs of programs including special education, transportation, textbooks and other educational expenditures, she said.

TerraVerde Renewable Energy Partners, a Marin County-based independent energy advising company that works with schools, businesses and public agencies, assisted the district in the planning, design and bidding process for the nine-campus project. The panels were constructed and installed by Texas-based PCI Solar.

The company also worked with the district to implement solar at the high schools, TerraVerde President Rick Brown said. Though the new systems will only provide 80 percent of the school’s electricity needs annually, extra compensation netted from the electricity sent to the electric grid during the summer months when school is out of session will allow the district to offset 100 percent of its electric bill, he said.

“They can put that money back in the classroom rather than paying PG&E,” he said.

District Superintendent Gary Callahan said the completion of the projects reinforces the district’s commitment to sustainability.

“I think our claim to fame is that we’re now the greenest school district in Sonoma County,” Callahan said. “It sends a message to the community that we value the environment and the taxpayer dollar, and that you can do both those things at the same time.”

Sheri Chlebowski, the president of the district’s board of trustees, said in addition to acting as a financial boon, the project will provide shade for students.

“We’re very happy about it,” she said.

She said the board looks forward to exploring further investments in sustainable projects in the future, including water capture mechanisms and drought-tolerant landscaping.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)