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State plan puts solar in all public schools

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    Radford High School custodian Dan Yara looks at solar panels that were recently installed on two buildings and the gym’s roof.

In what could become the largest solar power project of its kind in the nation, the Department of Education is proposing to install photovoltaic panels on every public school in Hawaii over the next five years in a bid to cut electricity costs and move the state closer to its renewable energy goals.

Officials also believe the proposed system, which would require little to no upfront costs from the state, will eventually be able to generate surplus power with profits that could go back into schools.

In the first year of implementation alone, the DOE estimates it could cut its spending on electricity by as much as $5 million.

Within five years the DOE hopes to have slashed its $47 million annual power bill in half, and believes a number of schools will be able to get most of their energy needs from solar power.

The plan comes as the DOE is spending more on electricity, even as its energy use declines.

In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, DOE schools and facilities used 147 million kilowatt-hours of electricity at a cost of $38 million.

By 2011-2012, usage had declined by nearly 11 percent — to 131 million kilowatt-hours — but the DOE’s electric bill had climbed 24 percent to $47 million.

Ray L’Heureux, DOE assistant superintendent for facilities and support services, said after studying similar solar power projects around the country, he concluded the Hawaii plan is feasible — and unprecedented. "Nobody has done this yet to this size and scale," he said.

The plan would also include efforts to install more energy-efficient components in schools, and dovetail with a more robust sustainability curriculum for all students and career and technical training for high-schoolers.

Hawaii’s school system isn’t alone in eyeing solar power. In recent years hundreds of elementary and secondary schools and university campuses around the nation have turned to photovoltaic systems to cut electricity costs, pouring the dollars they save into other expenses at a time when education funding is shrinking.

Monique Hanis, spokes­woman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, said Hawaii’s plan is "one of the most ambitious we’ve seen."

She said she was unaware of any other case of an entire school district moving to solar power.

But, she noted, other states have emerged as leaders in installing solar power systems on school campuses.

In California, 123 schools have solar power, and 40 more are installing the technology, according to the association. New Jersey has 259 public and private schools with solar power, and more than 40 schools in Arizona have installed photovoltaic systems.

Earlier this year Hawaii announced solar power pilot projects at schools on Kauai and Oahu. In all, solar panels will be installed or have already been installed at nearly 40 schools.

The pilots were developed under power purchase agreements, with the DOE paying no upfront costs. Instead, a third-party financing company owns the solar power systems and sells the electricity to the department over the 20-year life of the agreement.

On Oahu the DOE is paying 19 cents per kilowatt-hour for power under the agreement, well below the 33.6 cents per kilowatt-hour Oahu residents paid this month.

On Kauai, schools are paying 17 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with a residential rate of 44.9 cents a kilowatt-hour this month.

Gilbert Chun, DOE auxillary services branch administrator, said while the cost savings are important, key to the new statewide project is the education element: Every school, he said, will be able to take advantage of the solar "laboratory" on its rooftop.

He noted that the plan also calls for the installation of small wind turbines when possible.

"You can see where they (students) can start to learn about energy efficiency and generation," Chun said.

Elias Ali, principal of Radford High, one of the schools in the Oahu pilot program, said his campus is already looking into opportunities to weave the solar panels into the curriculum. "There is a potential beyond being a money saver," he said.

Like the pilots under way, Hawaii’s statewide plan calls for signing a master power purchase agreement with a vendor for a 20-year period, after which time the panels will probably need to be replaced.

The vendor, who will likely be selected before the end of the school year, will install panels at all 256 Hawaii schools by the fifth year of the agreement.

The project is scheduled to kick off in the coming school year with an audit of schools to pinpoint potential measures to increase energy efficiency, such as by replacing energy-hogging appliances.

Under the agreement, the DOE will buy solar power from the vendor at a reduced rate. And because of the size of the planned project, the DOE also believes the plan will generate revenue when excess power is sold.

But officials do not yet have good estimates of how much the excess power will yield. L’Heureux said projections put the profits anywhere from $16 million to $88 million annually, but stressed those figures are preliminary.

He noted that the plan would put the DOE well on its way toward a goal of using 90 percent clean energy by 2040.

The DOE has met with the state Public Utilities Commission to discuss the plan, and will sit down with Hawaiian Electric Co. soon, L’Heureux said.

HECO spokesman Darren Pai had no comment on the plan because HECO had not yet reviewed it, but said, "We support the DOE’s overall goals of controlling its energy costs."

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