Thursday, July 12, 2012

Solar Panels at LAUSD Schools Convert Valley's Blazing Sun into Energy

When triple-digit temperatures hit Woodland Hills this summer, Alma Aguirre isn't going to be thinking about her vehicle baking in the parking lot at Taft High, but the electricity generated by the solar panels covering the school's new carport.
Solar panels at Taft High School

The 492-kilowatt, $3.2 million solar carport at Ventura Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue is one of the first to be completed as Los Angeles Unified moves to reduce its utility bills by harnessing the San Fernando Valley's sunshine.

"It shades our cars, doesn't cost any money to run and it sometimes makes enough power to give some back to the (electric) grid," said Aguirre, plant manager at Taft.

Los Angeles Unified launched its solar-power initiative in 2009, when it installed a rooftop array at Canoga High. By 2014, it plans to have nearly 60 solar projects erected districtwide, including 26 in the Valley.

The entire system will generate a total of 21.3 megawatts of electricity, resulting in savings of $350,000 to $400,000 a year, said Kelly Schmader, chief of the district's Facilities Division.

Carport systems are being erected this summer at 15 Valley schools, including two which will also get rooftop arrays. Three additional carports and one more rooftop system are in the planning stages.

Although he conceded that solar carports are "somewhat of an eyesore," Schmader said they're cheaper to install and are less likely to create long-term problems than rooftop systems.

At Roybal High School in downtown Los Angeles, workers had to penetrate the roof in 1,000 places to install the solar panels.

"Punch a hole in a roof," Schmader said, "and water will find its way in."

The Division of State Architect, which has to review all school construction plans, said solar projects are becoming increasingly popular as districts try to reduce their energy costs. The agency has reviewed 77 solar projects so far this year, officials said, compared with 36 projects in all of 2007.

Although the photovoltaic panels are the most efficient in direct sunlight, they still work during June gloom or the overcast days of winter.

Very simply, sunlight reflected on the panels generates a direct-current charge that is transmitted to an inverter. There, it is converted to an alternating-current charge that can be used as electrical power.

The systems are designed so that a school uses the solar power first, before drawing electricity from the grid.

"We don't have any schools that are completely off the grid - but we're very close," Schmader said.

The district has contracted with five companies to complete the solar program, which is budgeted at about $143 million. LAUSD is paying for the program using $98 million from its construction bond program, $31 million in energy-saving rebates from the city Department of Water and Power and $14 million from a legal settlement with the utility.

"Every nickel we spend is bond money, but all the savings are going to the general fund," Schmader said. "People look at these and ask, `How can they afford to build projects when they're laying people off?' I ask, `How can we not afford them?"'


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