FAQ: Why Did the District Defer the Purchase and Installation of Some (But Not All) Solar Panels for the New High School Buildings?

Does the District have a plan for converting to solar power and reducing use of fossil fuels?

Yes. The School District is dedicated to reducing energy consumption and promoting sustainability at all school sites. The District’s ultimate goal is to have “zero-net-energy” (ZNE) facilities that generate enough clean, renewable, solar energy to offset energy consumption.

The Measure H1 bond program has made it possible to advance these initiatives, including: installation of highly-efficient ventilation and climate control equipment in 64 classrooms that improve heating and cooling, reduce energy consumption and operating costs, and eliminate the use of hazardous refrigerant chemicals; and plans for solar power in new high school buildings. (For more information about bond program objectives and accomplishments to date, see the Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee’s Third Annual Report to the Community.) An additional 22 elementary classrooms will be retrofitted with high-efficiency heating and cooling systems over the summers of 2021 and 2022. Installation of solar power across all school sites will be incremental, based in part on the condition and engineering of each site’s roof as well as availability of funding or leasing opportunities for solar panels.

Will the new STEAM Building and Performing Arts Center use solar power?

Yes. The District designed the new high school STEAM building and Performing Arts Center (PAC) with a total of 1,019 solar panels — 517 for the STEAM building and 502 for the PAC. Some of these are rooftop panels and others are mounted above windows and patios to help provide shade. The solar arrays for the two buildings are interconnected and, when combined, are designed to make the STEAM building ZNE. The number, orientation and configuration of panels was determined based on projected energy consumption as well as space constraints of these buildings and the Magnolia Campus.

The District explored various financing and leasing options for acquiring these solar panels and concluded that outright purchase was the only option for the STEAM and PAC projects. (For more information about the options, see the District’s October 14, 2020 solar power update.)

Will the full array of solar panels be in place when these buildings open?

No. A range of cost increases led the District to defer some but not all of the STEAM and PAC solar panels. The principal cost increases include:

  • Changes mandated by California’s Division of State Architect, which oversees public school construction, due to unique geologic conditions at the site and proximity to the Hayward Fault. These changes include increases in structural steel, rebar, rock anchors, micropiles, structural concrete, bedrock excavation and backfill, and shoring that added more than $1.8 million to project costs.
  • Discovery and replacement of deteriorating underground infrastructure (including pipes and valves that could not be connected to the new utilities) which added roughly $700,000.
  • Charges directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic which added roughly $400,000.

To help offset these added costs, the District deferred 305 of the STEAM panels and 492 of the PAC panels. (For more information about cost escalation and cost cutting, see the Measure H1 Bond Program 2018-19 Year-End Report) Although purchase of some panels has been deferred, all solar power infrastructure (including roof stanchions and bracketing, inverters, conduit and wiring) and all window and patio shade panels have been retained.

Fortuitously for the District, a subcontractor mistakenly ordered 87 of the 305 deferred STEAM panels and offered to deliver and install these at cost ($65,000). This price is a particular bargain because these panels are to be mounted on the sloped mansard roof, and these mansard panels are the most complicated and labor-intensive to install. Members of Piedmont High School’s Students for Solar, Piedmont Connect, and the Piedmont Education Foundation are raising funds to cover this $65,000 expense.

When the STEAM building opens, roughly 58% of the solar panels — including all shade panels on the south and west windows and on the engineering and art patios — will be in place and fully operational.

Why defer solar panels when reducing energy consumption and promoting sustainability are such important goals?

The decision to defer a portion of the solar panels was not made lightly, and was based on two key principles. First, with all solar infrastructure already in place, the deferred panels can be added easily when additional funds become available. Second, and more important, the deferral would not diminish the educational function of the buildings or the education experience of students.

When will additional funding be available?

This is uncertain. As noted above, Students for Solar, Piedmont Connect, and the Piedmont Education Foundation are raising funds to cover the cost of 87 of the deferred panels, so the District is already installing these.

Beyond these 87 panels, the cost to purchase and install the remaining 710 deferred panels is $1,156,000 ($334,000 for 218 STEAM panels and $822,000 for 492 PAC panels) based on current bids. In addition, the District is obtaining firm pricing to add battery storage. Battery storage would add significant value as it would: ensure uninterrupted power and enable the District and its servers to remain fully operational in a power outage; enable the District to serve as an emergency center for the community; and even out energy use and help avoid peak-demand pricing imposed by PG&E.

The budget challenges that led the District to defer solar panels have not been fully resolved, and cost cutting continues. Throughout project planning and construction, the District has worked closely with its general contractor and subcontractors to identify alternate “means and methods” of construction to reduce costs. This “value engineering,” combined with deferrals, have offset significant added costs. Nonetheless, to remain within budget, the District may need to consider further cuts to the PAC, which has already been trimmed to the bone. Unlike the solar panel deferral, possible cuts to the PAC may not be easily restored in the future and, more to the point, may have an impact on educational programs.

When additional bond funds or other public funding becomes available for capital improvements, the District may need to establish priorities among deferred projects. In contrast, private donations such as those raised by Students for Solar may be designated for a specific purpose by the donor.