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November 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

Escondido to go solar Escondido to go solar (November 19, 2004)

System will cost district about $70,000

by Alexandria Rocha

A 20-kilowatt photovoltaic system at Escondido Elementary School would save the world eight gallons of gas a day.

It would also shave off about $7,000 a year from the school's energy bill and augment the entire district's math and science curricula.

In such tough financial times, it's too bad the system will cost the Palo Alto Unified School District $70,000.

If the district didn't pay that share, it would lose a $128,000 grant it received for the $247,000 system from the state's Energy Commission. The $50,000 donated for the cause from the Morgan Family Foundation and the community would also be in limbo.

At a meeting earlier this month, the district's Board of Education decided to withdraw $70,000 from the district's Property Fund to pay for the rest of the system, which will likely pay itself off in 10 years.

"The remaining (system) balance we felt was small enough that the payback from the energy savings was worth making the investment," said board President Cathy Kroymann. "It was an easy decision to invest that money so we had a teaching and learning tool for our students."

The solar panel system at Escondido will be the third such system at Palo Alto's public schools. However, the first two are much smaller. Ohlone Elementary School has a one-kilowatt system and Gunn High School has a five-kilowatt system. Both were funded through grants, as well.

The plan is to use Escondido's solar panel system as a districtwide learning tool. Since the system will come with educational software that actually tracks the daily energy savings, teachers can take their students to Escondido on field trips.

According to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, schools across the country are going solar, and not just for thepower but to enrich the math and science curricula. A big reason behind the solar trend is that state and federal agencies have recently developed grant programs to encourage schools to install photovoltaic systems.

Carl Salas, the district's energy consultant, said agencies are starting to offer the grants because the energy and gasoline savings are paramount. "There's no pollution, and you don't have to ship from the Middle East," he added.

In 2002, Lisa Benatar, a science teacher at Escondido Elementary School, jumped at an opportunity to apply for such a grant through the California Energy Commission.

Escondido was one of 15 schools given a grant that year to never receive any funds -- the Energy Commission was unable to secure the money through the state Department of Finance. When the funds became available earlier this year, however, those schools were given preference and encouraged to apply again.

The Energy Commission awarded the district $128,000 for a 20-kilowatt photovoltaic system at Escondido. It sounded doable, until Salas estimated the installation of such a system to be about $247,000.

By then the district was facing a $6.5 million deficit due to the state budget crisis. If the district was going to cash in on the $128,000 from the state, it had to come up with the rest by December. Escondido's parent and teacher community rallied to raise about $25,000, which matched a donation already given to the cause from the local Morgan Family Foundation.

Their efforts still left the district $69,000 short. The district then decided to pull the money from the Property Fund.

Kroymann said the Property Fund's balance is about $6 million. Dan Sarouhan, district director of facilities development said the Property Fund is a separate account "where money was accrued by the sale of property few years ago." It is set aside for any capital expenses, such as reopening Terman Middle School, he said.

Now that Escondido's solar panel project was put out for bid, Salas and Sarouhan admit the bid could come back much more than $247,000. They will just have to wait and see.

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