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Cash-strapped California schools seek savings through solar

By Steve Almasy, CNN
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Solar panel price dip = schools save big
  • California's San Ramon Valley school system had $20 million in budget cuts in five years
  • Now it's paying $23 million for solar panels with the help of low-interest federal loans
  • Solar panels will offset up to 75% of each school's electricity use, official says
  • The program has broad support, although some residents have expressed concern

(CNN) -- California schools are hurting. Budget cuts in the millions are causing school districts to find ways to save cash.

Some schools have laid off staff. Others have increased class sizes.

And some have spent millions on solar panels to trim their electricity bills.

With the help of low-interest loans from the federal government, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District installed 10,000 photovoltaic panels at five schools. It was one of 90 systems in California, including some colleges, to do so.

Those panels should create enough electricity to offset 67% to 75% of each school's electrical use, a San Ramon Valley official said. The savings initially will be used to pay back the loans, which came from federal stimulus funds, officials said.

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The panels will effectively pay for themselves in 16 years, said Terry Koehne, a spokesman for the San Ramon Valley district, which has 35 schools and 27,000 students about 30 miles east of San Francisco.

"It's pure profit after that," he told CNN. "And following that, we're going to start realizing savings of $2 (million), $3 (million), $4 million a year."

Like many California schools, San Ramon Valley has seen budget cuts -- $20 million in five years -- and needs to spend its money wisely.

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Upfront costs for the panels and installation were $23 million, Koehne said, a price "the overwhelming majority" of the area residents accepted. According to the Contra Costa Times, though, some people objected to spending millions on equipment while other detractors worry the school system won't see the savings predicted.

But Koehne said the program is saving money for both the community and the school district "at a time when we desperately need it."

"And it also helps us to reduce the carbon footprint," he added. "It's a no-brainer."

The solar industry has experienced recent turmoil: Three U.S. companies have filed for bankruptcy protection, including California-based Solyndra, which was the target of a federal raid last week and an investigation into $535 million in loan guarantees funded by the 2009 stimulus bill.

Solar panels cover one of the parking lots of Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, California.
Solar panels cover one of the parking lots of Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, California.

Nevertheless, solar panels are less expensive right now, thanks in part to a growing competition from Chinese manufacturers.

SunPower, which is manufacturing the panels for San Ramon Valley, predicted the savings will come sooner -- they're big enough that the 90 school systems they work with can save money right away. Bill Kelly, SunPower's managing director, said the energy saved and government incentives will help schools save millions of dollars in the first year.

And, he added, there are multiple benefits to the community, including putting electricians back to work installing the panels.

"One of the things that's rewarding for me is that technology companies like ours are bringing job opportunities to California," Kelly said. "And then we're also helping students that will be coming into the market prepare for those jobs."

The company sponsored a two-week "solar institute" for dozens of students to learn about how this energy benefits their schools and to become advocates for solar power, Koehne said.

Many of the panels in California were installed on roofs, but San Ramon installed solar canopies that cover its school parking lots, too. The canopies also move, getting the most energy they can by tracking the sun through the daylight.

Monica Garcia, president of the school board for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the electric bill savings will be more than $100 million over 20 years.

"What that means to me is less dollars going to facilities and more dollars going to kids," she said.

CNN's Casey Wian and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.