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Mt. Diablo district to begin solar projects in June

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, March 18th, 2011 at 6:55 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Ensuring that the public will embrace the Mt. Diablo school district’s 51-site solar project after construction begins could be a daunting task.

And Pete Pedersen, who is managing the project, admitted to the Measure C Bond Oversight Committee on Thursday that he loses sleep thinking about it.

“At 3 in the morning, I’m trying to create a vision about: ‘How bad can this be?'” he said. “What things do I need to be thinking about now that are going to be happening next March? If there needs to be a 500-pound gorilla who says, ‘no,’ it’s got to be me right now. Out of all the projects that we’ve ever worked on, this — PR-wise — is just challenging. There are a million different ways it can go bad.”

Here’s the list of 17 sites in Bay Point and Concord that will receive solar panels over the summer, during the first phase of construction:

District maintenance and operations yard: $807,701
Dent Center: $2 million
Bel Air Elementary: $898,014
Cambridge Elementary: $1.1 million
Concord HS: $2.9 million
Delta View Elem: $1.3 million
El Dorado MS: $1.4 million
El Monte Elem: $826,321
Monte Gardens Elem: $1 million
Mt. Diablo HS: $3.7 million
Olympic HS: $847,046
Rio Vista Elem: $737,937
Riverview MS: $2.3 million
Shore Acres Elem: $35,540
Sun Terrace Elem: $1.1 million
Westwood Elem: $653,518
Wren Avenue Elem: $706,449

Site plans showing the location of solar panels on each campus are at http://169.199.90.240/MDUSDFacilities/pages/sites.html. This is a new website the district has launched to answer the public’s questions about how it is spending its $348 million 2010 Measure C bond money.

On Tuesday, the Mt. Diablo school board boosted its payment for solar panels to SunPower Corporation by $1.8 million, bringing the total cost of its project to about $67.4 million.

Trustees also added $55,000 to their engineering costs, for a total of $88,600.

The district expects to save more than $3 million a year in electricity costs after the project is completed in April, 2012. District officials are also excited about reducing their carbon footprint and using the solar project to teach students about resource conservation.

But it’s the short-term shock that the solar structures could cause that is worrying Pedersen. He’s been making the rounds at schools, drawing up plans in an attempt to put the panels in places that would be least obtrusive.

At some elementary schools, however, this is proving difficult. At Monte Gardens Elementary, some people suggested putting the panels over the lawn, he said.

“Then, a year later, the grass may not get any sun. It’s dead,” he said. “And you’ve got a mud pit.”

To prevent this from happening, Pedersen said he worked with the principal to fit the panels — which sit atop carports or shade structures — between asphalt and grass on the campus.

Cambridge Elementary’s space is so small that the district may have to put solar panels on district land that is jointly shared with the city in an adjacent park, Pedersen said. This may also be the case for Meadow Homes Elementary, which isn’t in the first phase.

He said Mt. Diablo HS was also problematic because of shade that would be cast onto the panels. So, they will be spread throughout the campus.

At El Dorado MS, the district plans to “tuck” the panels around the blacktop, he said.

Other schools in future phases that are problematic are Mt. Diablo Elementary in Clayton and Valle Verde and Walnut Acres in Walnut Creek, he said.

“At Mt. Diablo Elementary there’s very little room,” he said. “If we’re going to make our production numbers to offset cost, we’re having a real problem.”

Valle Verde and Walnut Acres have active parent groups that are concerned about safety around the “big poles” holding up the structures, he said.

“You’re trying to preserve the turf,” he said. “You don’t want to displace the Little League or the Soccer League. And you think you’ve made everybody happy… until we put these things in, and all the people you thought were happy are unhappy. So, we’re a little anxious. So, we’re trying to think: ‘What can we do to reach out to the community?'”

First, he’s meeting with the administrators. But some members of the committee said he also needs to meet with parents and to ensure that the administrators know about the website and make their communities aware of it.

Pedersen and his staff said they’re willing to make presentations at schools and have already done that at some sites. The team has also created brochures to be passed out to the phase 1 schools, outlining the project.

Committee members said the information should also be distributed with parent newsletters and at school open houses.

“We just need to keep our eye on the prize,” Pedersen said. “Every dollar we save with this goes to the kids. To me, environmentally, it’s great. But if I can free up $3 million a year, as a principal, I could tolerate a little eyesore.”

Pedersen said the first phase would be easiest, since school won’t be in session.

“The construction of phases two and three, when school is in session,” he said, “that is a little more difficult.”

Is your school community happy with the district’s solar plan for your site?

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