CONCORD -- Solar panels on carports and shade structures are serving a dual purpose at Cambridge Elementary -- creating energy for the school, while shielding students and cars from the weather.

"Now, students line up under them for P.E., so they're not in the direct sun," said teacher Lizzy Enzweiler, as she watched fourth-graders kicking balls on the blacktop recently beneath two large solar panel arrays. "The other day, the after-school program got rained on and they all ran under it. So, it protects them from the rain too."

Across the state and nation, elected leaders are praising solar projects as a way to cut costs while going green. Money saved on utility costs could help stave off layoffs or program cuts during the state's continuing financial crisis, they say.

Solar projects are a key element of state schools chief Tom Torlakson's "Schools of the Future" initiative, which seeks to change California laws to encourage more renewable power systems, such as one he visited at Aragon High in San Mateo in September. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez and a presidential adviser, visited Los Medanos Elementary in Pittsburg in October, which has saved 33 percent on its utility bills through energy-saving measures, including ground-level solar panels.

Federal and state incentives have prompted a dramatic rise in school solar projects throughout the state during the past decade, along with funding options that range from bonds to low-interest loans to power purchase agreements. The California Solar Initiative launched in 2007 offered rebates for installation, resulting in 191 megawatts of active K-12 and community college installations as of June, with another 141 megawatts planned or under construction.

Over 30 years, the projects are expected to save schools and colleges about $3 billion in energy costs, with an anticipated net savings of $1.5 billion, after subtracting installation and maintenance costs, according to data compiled by SunPower. The San Jose-based company has partnered with the California School Boards Association to promote solar energy at schools.

It recently celebrated the completion of a 1 megawatt project at West Valley College in Saratoga and a 3.3 megawatt project in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Contra Costa County. In the nearby Mt. Diablo Unified School District, SunPower is in the midst of constructing the largest K-12 solar project in the country, expected to generate 11.2 megawatts on 51 sites, which are anticipated to save $221.8 million over 30 years. This includes $16.1 million in California Solar Initiative rebates over five years, plus $205.6 million in estimated utility bill savings for three decades.

"It's one of the best investments that this school district has made maybe ever," said Mt. Diablo board President Gary Eberhart. "Certainly, it's one that's going to pay off larger than any other ever made. If we hadn't done this, we could have been closing schools and laying people off."

The district is spending $59 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds plus $34 million in general obligation bonds on the project, which voters will pay off as part of a $348 million construction bond measure approved last year. The district plans to divert the solar rebates into its general fund to help pay for school and district operating costs.

Bill Kelly, SunPower's managing director, said he expects the trend toward solar energy in schools to continue.

"The core goal is to deliver compelling savings," Kelly said. "That's really driving the interest in solar."
While most communities are happy with the projects, some in the Mt. Diablo district have questioned the savings calculations and complained that the solar panels have changed the appearance of campuses.

"I have not been pleased with their industrial look, the removal of trees that had provided natural shade, and the interference with blacktop and playground areas in some of our schools," Mt. Diablo district trustee Cheryl Hansen said in an email.

But in the South Bay, West Valley College President Lori Gaskin said the normally white or metal-colored carports have been painted brown, so they blend into the wooded Saratoga hills campus. Gaskin calls the carports on both sides of the parking lot entrance the "solar gateway" to the campus, since it's one of the first things people see when they arrive.

"They see not only our beautiful campus, but also a tangible commitment that we have to sustainability," she said. "So, for us, it's not just getting those concepts, but it's putting into practice those concepts for the longer term well-being of our campus."

In light of the recent Solyndra collapse, some taxpayers have questioned whether solar projects are good investments. But Frank Biehl, vice president of the East Side Union High School board in San Jose, said he sees no relationship between Solyndra and school projects.

"They're a manufacturer of solar panels, with different technology," he said.

California school districts, on the other hand, have contracted with companies such as Chevron Energy Solutions and SunPower, which guarantee that their projects will produce the power promised. If they don't, the companies pay the districts.

As the trend toward solar energy in schools continues, officials predict they will continue to reap rewards that go beyond energy savings.

Solar panels provide shade, parking lot lighting under the carports and space for electric car charging stations, said Jeffrey Kingston, vice chancellor of facilities for Las Positas Community College.
"There's a lot of primary and secondary benefits," he said.

Staff writer Sharon Noguchi contributed to this story.
Solar Schools By the numbersSampling of Bay Area school solar projects
District Size Cost Projected Savings
Contra Costa Community
College District 3.2 megawatts $35.2 Million $70 million over 25 years
Mt. Diablo Unified 12 megawatts $93 million $221.8 million over 30 years
Pittsburg 3.1 megawatts $18.5 million more than $28 million over 30 years
San Ramon Valley 3.3 megawatts $23.2 million $3-$5 million annually after 16 years
Las Positas College District 3.3 megawatts $12.9 million $200,000/year
East Side Union High 7.1 megawatts $50 million* $93 million
West Valley Community College 1 megawatt approx. $5 million $600,000/year
*Includes some other energy conservation improvements