A plan to add solar panels to the parking lot in front of Palo Alto High School has prompted some residents -- concerned that the structures could obscure the school's historic facade -- to ask the district to halt the project.
But others think the protests are much ado about nothing.
Four solar arrays would be mounted on steel pillars along El Camino Real behind the row of trees closest to the street. The structures would allow cars to park underneath, according to Palo Alto Unified School District documents.
The Board of Education gave the project the green light in November for an installation contract with Renewable Energy Corporation Solar for solar installations at six schools: JLS and Terman middle schools; Nixon, Escondido and Ohlone elementary schools; and Paly. The schools were recommended through a $75,000 feasibility study the board commissioned in spring 2016 through energy consultant ARC Alternatives Inc. The consultant urged the board to take advantage of the city of Palo Alto's net-energy metering program, in which the district would be able to sell the energy from the panels to the city. The panels at all six schools could save the district a net benefit in savings of $1.1 million over the 25-year useful life of the system, after costs, according to a district solar feasibility study. At Paly, the panels would generate 483.5 kilowatts.
The panels are scheduled for installation during the summer. But some residents are saying not so fast.
During Tuesday's board meeting, Stewart Berman, a Paly facilities steering committee member, said he called an emergency meeting last week regarding the photovoltaic project.
"None of us had ever heard of (this project) before. We're concerned about that because we think there are a number of issues with that project. For one, we think it has really bad aesthetics. I think it has possibly bad economics.
"In spite of some of the parent attempts to create community outreach for the project, none of the community-outreach meetings were attended. I think the awareness among the community for this project is really virtually nil. We as a committee think that once people find out the nature of the project they're going to be quite upset with it," he said.
The steering committee supports a photovoltaic project at the school.
"We just need some time to do it. We know some approvals have already been made and the project is hurtling to implementation at this point, so we're just asking to pause the project long enough so we can really come up with a really good project working with the people who are already working to implement this project," he said.
Rachel Kellerman, the high school's librarian, also urged the board to pause the Paly portion of the solar project.
"These large industrial carports — 15 to 18 feet tall — should not be placed in front of our 100-year-old Tower building and obscure the view of (Haymarket Theater and the Media Arts Center)," she said.
She called for an extensive review of the project by the school's administrators, teachers, student leaders, alumni, the local preservation community and anyone else who has a "vested interest," she said.
In letters to the editor, Paly alumni also voiced their disapproval of the process and the potential impact visually.
"As Palo Alto grows and change, historical facades such as the Campanile and front office become even more essential to safeguard. A city without its aesthetic history and character rapidly becomes a soulless one," Keith Paugh wrote.
Edith Miller, a former student, 20-year Paly staff member and a founding chair of Alumni and Friends of Palo Alto High School, said she was also distressed by the plans.
"Surely funding is available to put it on the rooftops or make the panels serve also as shade in the parking lots. There is plenty of space back by the corporate yard or at 25 Churchill (Ave.)," she wrote. "The Tower Building, the arches, the Haymarket theater and the new Performing Arts Center is a complex of which all of Palo Alto should be proud. It cannot be hidden by solar panels."
But Robert Lancefield, a parent of Paly graduates, said by phone on Wednesday that he thinks the panels are a great idea and an economic boon.
"The view from El Camino Real is not all that great. It's a utilitarian area. If someone wants to see the tower, they can do so from the Embarcadero side," he said.
Lancefield, who was on the Foothill-DeAnza Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee, said photovoltaic panels were installed at both campuses. Although the panels are at lower elevation than at Paly and might have less of an impact visually, they have not been a problem at either campus, he said.
In addition, the panels are a smart investment, he said. Even his wife's hometown, Amity, Oregon, population 1,667, added solar panels in its corporation yard and reaps more than $8,000 a year for programs, he said.
As for aesthetics: "We shouldn't try to win the argument based on aesthetics," he said. "Given climate warming and global change, all of us have to make changes. I think this is one of the more modest ones."
Deborah Goldeen, a Paly alum, also supported the installation in a letter to the editor.
"When I'm driving down El Camino, I'm paying attention to the traffic, not the view. In the minds of students, and probably most of the parents, the El Camino side of Paly hardly exists," said Goldeen, whose sons also graduated from the school.
"I'm sure there are many practical reasons that particular location was chosen. The fact that it is being 'rushed through' is most likely due to the fact that the school board has a lot on their plate and never would have believed anyone would object," she wrote.
Board President Ken Dauber said district staff "have very significant progress working with community members to address the issues around placement of the solar panels at Paly, including not having panels in front of the Tower Building. Speaking personally, I don't expect this issue to come to the board."
District staff did not provide requested information by press time.
Education Reporter Elena Kadvany contributed to this story.