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Auburn district’s new solar project expected to save $3.5 million

E.V. Cain parents say more information needed
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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A new solar project is expected to save a local school district up to $3.5 million over 25 years, but some parents say they haven’t been given enough information about it. A new energy project The Auburn Union School District has entered into a Power Purchase Agreement with iecRenewables, LLC to begin a solar energy project at all four schools in the district, according to Michele Schuetz, superintendent of the Auburn Union School District. According to Schuetz, iecRenewables is receiving federal tax incentives that are not directly available to the district to buy solar panels. The company will own the panels and sell the energy they create back to the district at a lower-than-market rate, according to Daniel Berlant, president of the Auburn Union School District Board of Trustees. Berlant said the panels will be placed on empty pieces of land on the campuses as well as on top of covered parking spots. Schuetz said because of the agreement, the district is not paying any up-front costs to have the project installed at the school sites. Through the project, iecRenewables is also paying Indoor Environmental Services to install new, more efficient lighting systems at the schools. This part of the package is also at no cost to the district, said Monica Williams, Chief Business Official for the district. Williams said the district currently pays about $286,787 a year for PG&E service, and this project is estimated to save the district about $43,000 for the first year and up to $3.5 million over 25 years. “That is not something we could turn down,” Berlant said. “Every year we are counting pennies and in our small district, every penny counts.” Berlant said money saved through the project would go right back into the schools. Williams said while the money saved could go toward keeping existing programs alive if the state decides to cut more from education, in the future the district’s budget advisory committee, which is partially made up of parents, would talk about where the funds were needed most. While the project will cover 80 percent of the schools’ electricity, 20 percent will still be provided by PG&E, according to Berlant. He said the district didn’t want to put all its eggs into one basket. “You build it so that it’s a little bit smaller than your entire energy use, and the part where we know that in the next 20 years we are going to find other ways with other technologies to become more energy efficient,” he said. What do parents think? Auburn resident and E.V. Cain Charter School mom Barbara Chase said she doesn’t understand why she hasn’t heard about this project before and she hopes parents will have a say where the savings go in the schools. “Why haven’t they sent anything out to parents at this point?” Chase said. “Why are we hearing about it from you and not from the district?” Chase said while she likes the idea of a solar project and it could be a real positive for the district, she thinks more information needs to be given to parents. Chase said she hopes this project would mean that school programs in Auburn Union would not have to be cut in the future, like what has happened with the music program at Ophir Elementary School, which one of her children attends. “If they are going to be saving that kind of money, there should be no threat in the next 25 years that we will lose music,” she said. E.V. Cain mom Tara Michieli said although the district said there are no up-front costs, she thinks there must be some cost to the district down the line. “I think once you crunch the numbers, once it comes to having to pay for the system, it’s not going to benefit the schools that much in the long run,” Michieli said. Ongoing costs to the district? According to Williams, because iecRenewables would own the panels, it would be responsible for the maintenance of them. It would also be responsible for the maintenance of the land the panels sit on. The project brings no cost to the district except what it pays for the electricity on an annual basis, Williams said. Chase said she would like to see comparisons of other school districts that have used the solar project and how it has impacted them in the short and long term. Schuetz said installation is expected to begin in the spring and be completed by next summer. Rocque Fajardo, an E.V. Cain mom, said she needs more information about the project to have a truly informed opinion, but she has concerns about a couple of things. “Sure, I think overall it is a nice idea,” Fajardo said. “As far as the impact with students and parents, and so forth, I guess I’m skeptical about the cost. Whenever any project is taken on, they always underestimate how long it takes (to complete).” Fajardo said she thinks there are other priorities the district could focus on first before this kind of project. Berlant said he is looking forward to the new solar energy system. “I’m just excited about the part where we are saving money here while being energy efficient,” he said. ----------------------------------------------------- Auburn Union School District solar energy project For more information about the project, visit the district’s website at auburn.k12.ca.us/solar.html