Los Banos district backs off solar plans

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comApril 23, 2013 

Because of worries about cost and maintenance, Los Banos Unified School District officials are suspending their research on transitioning to solar energy.

"Solar energy installation is expensive," Superintendent Steve Tietjen said. "To produce about 80 percent of our consumption would cost us around $23 million."

School board trustee Dennis Areias, who sits on a district panel looking into using solar energy, said he doesn't want the district on the hook for the funding.

"We are still digging into that to see what kind of money is available because we don't want to come up with any money out of our pockets. We want to get grant money, we want to get deferred loans," Areias said. "What we're trying to do is put something together where it cost us nothing upfront and our return on our investment will be our monthly savings going forward."

Areias said Pacheco and Los Banos high schools have heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that would be compatible for using solar energy.

"We have visited with three different companies at this point in time. You need to upgrade some of what you have in place so you get the best return on your investment," Areias said.

"It's a program where we want to get as many schools as possible to be potentially tied into this, but it's not like we can't start at one or two sites."

Tietjen said zero-interest loans may be available in September to help pay for infrastructure upgrades and solar panel installation.

"These schools are doing this through zero-interest loans and long paybacks based on the energy savings they're creating," Tietjen said. "They're saying 'You got $80,000 to $2 million of HVAC replacement. You can build that into your zero-interest loan along with solar to energize 80 percent of your schools.' "

Tietjen said that because of the uncertainty of whether loan money will be available, his top priority is opening Mercey Springs Elementary School rather than pursuing solar panel installation.

"The state has $60 million down to $30 million on the loan side. So will the money be here in September? We don't know," Tietjen said. "And I hate the hard sell from the solar folks. They always end their presentations with, 'Well, the money's available now, but it may not be available in six months.' "

Trustee John Mueller, who is a construction contractor, said his concern is that the solar panel system will wear out, leaving the district to pay for replacement.

"From a construction point of view, a lot of the time, what they're getting you into is a loan that at the end you're having to replace the whole system. What you end up having to do is upgrade at that point and put in a panel because that (first) panel is outdated," Mueller said.

Trustee Carole Duffy, who sits on the solar energy panel with Areias, said she's always worried about money.

"I'm in favor of starting small, but we'll see how it goes," she said.

District officials have agreed to set the solar panel issue aside until July.

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