Visalia Schools Green with Renewable Energy

The sun is shining on Visalia Unified School District and a project to take more schools green.

Over the spring semester, the district will add 10 more campuses to the growing list of schools using solar panels to help lower energy costs.

“It helps us reduce our overall costs,” said Steve Pena, VUSD project manager. “We generate power in the mornings and evenings. This will help offset costs of what we use.”

The construction projects will be the third phase in the district’s solar project, which began in 2013. The first two phases were funded with Measure E, Proposition 39 and local money, administration said.

Solar panels for the first two phases, which were added to 11 campuses, were purchased by the school. In the third phase, panels will be leased through Solar City.

“We didn’t have the roughly $10 million to purchase the panels,” Pena said. “We will lease them through a PPA, just like a homeowner does.”

The district will pay 12 cents per kilowatt to the solar company, compared to the 17 cents the district is currently spending. If the district wishes to buy the panels, they may do so at a later time, Pena said.

The the third phase will cost Visalia Unified $1.5 million, which will be used to build the awnings used to house the panels.

Campuses set to undergo construction over the next few months include El Diamante High School, Annie R. Mitchell Elementary, Oak Grove Elementary, Shannon Ranch Elementary, VTEC, Manuel F. Hernandez Elementary, Ridgeview Middle School, Cottonwood Creek Elementary and Four Creeks Elementary. A solar panel installation at Golden West will be used for both the high school and the nearby Adult School.

Construction woes

The panels are set to be installed in school parking lots, which has some concerned about accessibility.

Construction began at Oak Grove last week and, weather permitting, will be completed by the end of the week, said John Davis, Oak Grove principal.

“Of course we do everything we can to mitigate inconveniences to families in the community,” he said. “We made sure we didn’t lose drop-off and pick-up locations. That was really important to us.”

As with all sites undergoing construction, the awnings will be completed a few months before the panels are set to arrive. This will help with parking, as spaces will be open to staff and families in-between installations.

Work on the project is also scheduled around the less-active times of the school day.

Currently, the construction is in the center of the Oak Grove’s parking lot and in a section of the adjacent sports field. Both areas are fenced off to keep students, faculty and community members safe, Davis said.

“Of course we want to reduce any inconveniences to our community, but our first priority is always the safety of our students,” he added.

Construction at Manuel F. Hernandez will begin on Thursday and will continue until at least May 5. Although the project will take three months to complete, the bulk of the parking lot construction that will impact drivers will be completed by mid-February.

Still, school officials are doing everything possible to make the process easier on families, Principal Cheryl LaVerne said.

The school’s drop-off and pick-up lane will remain open for those not walking with students onto campus.

“The biggest inconvenience will be for parents who park and pick up their students,” LaVerne said. “There will still be parking, just not as close and as much as we’re used to.”

An estimated two-thirds of the parking lot spaces will be blocked off over the next couple weeks.

Aside from fencing around construction areas, staff will monitor the parking lot during both morning and afternoon drop-off/pick-up times to ensure parent and student safety, LaVerne said.

Apart from energy savings, both sites are also excited about the shade the solar panels will provide.

“It’s really a win, win,” LaVerne said.

Davis agreed.

“We’re doing the right thing in the community by having clean energy,” he said. “Eight months out of the year we’ll be awfully glad to have shade.”

He and his staff are already looking at ways to take advantage of the awnings in the school’s sports field, like using it as a picnic space.

“The long term has many positives,” Davis said. “Short term, we’re doing everything we can to try to mitigate inconveniences.”

Visalia Schools Green with Renewable Energy, by Calley Cederlof, The Visalia Times-Delta, January 31, 2017.

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