With energy costs on the rise, school districts throughout California are looking into solar projects. Districts in Berkeley, Oakland, Lodi and even little Planada Elementary in Merced County have braved the frontier, a leap of faith in an industry of fast-changing technology and even faster-moving prices and financing options.
Tonight, the Manteca Unified School board will vote on a $30 million green energy program, financed by
ultra-low interest bonds to be paid from the general fund.
Manteca's proposal includes lighting retrofits, conservation measures and some wind power, but the $26 million centerpiece is a no-bid solar energy contract with IEC Power, LLC. The district estimates that energy produced at 26 sites would save it $25.6 million over 25 years, which with $2.9 million in state solar incentives would keep the project in the black.
Should those savings fail to materialize, however, the district would be dipping into critical operating funds that cover payroll and classroom costs to pay back the loan.
Manteca chose to go it alone, developing its own plan and fully owning its production systems, said Victoria Brunn, the district's coordinator of sustainability and energy education. She led the team that developed the plan and evaluated several companies before choosing IEC.
A former vocational education teacher, Brunn left the classroom three years ago to shepherd energy conservation in the district, which pays roughly $2.5 million a year in electricity bills. She expects the solar project to shave 65 percent off the district's energy needs.
The design-build process allows one company to manage both areas. The district lays out requirements and selects companies to give proposals, rather than opening the project to competitive bids.
Some solar energy experts have questioned the price and risks of the single-source contract. A Bay Area-based nonprofit organization wrote the district and school board in early August, warning that the project was too expensive.
Reached Monday afternoon, Tom Kelly of KyotoUSA estimated that the contract was $7 million too high and said the contract does not have performance guarantees up to industry standards. Kelly's group was hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop solar master plans for three California public school districts and receives no fees from school districts or vendors.
An official at a Modesto-based industrial solar energy firm, who gave a general estimate of cost on condition the company not be named, said it would expect to bid in the range of $4.25 per watt, far lower than the Manteca contract of $5.75 per watt.
Manteca Unified serves about 23,300 students at 33 school sites and has an annual unrestricted general fund budget of roughly $140 million.
The Manteca Unified School District board will meet at 7 tonight at the district office boardroom, 2271 W. Louise Ave., Manteca.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339.