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American Canyon High School Unveils Solar Power

Installed at American Canyon High School in 2011, this solar power system has cut the school's utility bill to less than $100 a year. The Napa Valley Unified School District expects this one megawatt solar power system to save nearly $17 million over the next 25 years. 

The use of solar panels at American Canyon High School has proven to be a financially smart move for the Napa Valley Unified School District — so smart that officials want to duplicate this success at all of the district’s middle schools.

Without opposition, the school board told staff last week to request bids from companies for solar installations at American Canyon Middle School and the three middle schools in Napa: Harvest, Redwood and Silverado.

ACHS’ solar power system was installed four years ago, and has produced so much electricity that the district has been able to sell back the extra power generated by the 1-megawatt system consisting of 4,000 solar panels.

The savings has been substantial, and has made people like Assistant Superintendent Wade Roach a happy man.

“I can tell you our power bill at American Canyon High School is less than $100 a year,” Roach told the school board last week, “so it has worked out for us down there.”

Roach brought to the board another solar idea for consideration: bring solar to American Canyon Middle School as well Silverado, Redwood and Harvest middle schools in Napa.

Currently, the district is paying some big PG&E bills to light, heat and cool the middle schools.

Harvest is costing $141,224 a year, followed by Redwood, $112,315, Silverado, $97,036, and ACMS, $72,366, records show. Altogether, the four schools are costing the district nearly $423,000 each year for electricity.

But this expense could disappear entirely if the middle schools had their own solar fields, or photovoltaic systems.

“Whatever we can do to take money away from PG&E, I like that,” said Roach.

Installing photovoltaic systems is not an inexpensive move. ACHS’ cost about $5 million back in 2011, and installing panels at the middle schools today would demand about $3.8 million from the district budget.

Schools, however, have another option these days by partnering with solar companies like SunPower Corp., which has already done some work for NVUSD and the Napa Sanitation District.

Roach and district consultant Gopal Shanker told board members last week that signing a power purchase agreement with someone like SunPower would not cost the district a dime to put in solar panels at ACMS, Redwood, Silverado and Harvest.

Companies like SunPower don’t charge customers for the installation because they benefit from tax breaks provided by the government and from selling electricity to their customers, but at a rate lower than PG&E’s.

The school district would start seeing a savings in its electricity bills as soon as the first year that the systems begin operation, Shanker said.

But, Shanker added, the advantages of going solar will dim soon because PG&E has been lobbying the California Public Utilities Commission to alter the rate tariffs and other rules governing the selling back of solar-generated electricity to the grid.

Shanker said the these rate advantages and regulations are ending soon, which is why the district should “consider a third party financing model so these systems can get installed and then you are grandfathered in.”

Another district official, Don Evans, who oversees school construction, told the board that SunPower’s solar panels are “some of the very best.”

“You can see the quality of the craftsmanship,” said Evans, referring to the new system that SunPower installed outside district offices off Lincoln Avenue and on the campuses of Napa and Vintage high schools within the past year.

“If we get the right incentives, we should be moving forward in that direction,” Evans recommended to board members.

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