Solar installation commences at CUSD schools

A small but engaged group of people gathered at the Richard S. Kirkendall Education Center Wednesday evening to discuss CUSD’s move to solar power. 

With every construction project, however beneficial, comes some disruption, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker allowed. Claremont High School, the site of the largest solar project in the district, is already feeling the effects.

The student parking lot, which will be home to solar parking canopies, is fenced off and closed to students. The district is projecting the lot may be closed through spring, although Ms. Shoemaker said it’s possible the work will move more quickly.

CHS families and residents with homes near the school were informed about the closure ahead of time. Students who drive can try to nab spots near the tennis courts or use the lot at Taylor Hall in neighboring Cahuilla Park. Parents who are dropping students off must do so in front of the school instead of in the parking lot.

Despite the advance notice, heavy drop-off and pick-up times at the high school have proved chaotic this week, according to Ms. Shoemaker. With this in mind, CUSD has assigned extra proctors to monitor traffic, while the Claremont PD has provided some officers. The need for personnel will likely abate as the CHS community adapts to the lot closure.

Ms. Shoemaker said that the district is already thinking of ways to mitigate any disruption in drop-off and pick-up that could be caused by a solar canopy installation planned for the Danbury School parking lot. It’s a situation the district want to be especially sensitive about, given that Danbury serves disabled students.

By October 15, fencing will be up at all 10 CUSD school sites. The district office parking lot will get fencing on October 29. All of the solar arrays should be in place by the end of March. PFMG Solar, the company installing the structures, will then sell power to CUSD more cheaply than Southern California Edison does.

The project has been arranged so that each school will produce 75 percent of its power through solar. The district expects to save $6 million on its electricity bills over 25 years. 

Alex Smith, vice president of business development for PFMG Solar, shared large, cardboard-mounted photographs of each Claremont site with renderings of the solar arrays.

Like CHS and Danbury, El Roble Intermediate and the district office will have parking canopies installed. The local elementary schools and San Antonio High School, which is significantly smaller than CHS, will each receive elevated structures gathering sunlight.

The elevated structures are situated at the edge of playing fields and are large enough so kids can run beneath them or use them for lunchtime shade. In some cases there will be a single structure, and in other cases one of the arrays will be broken up into two or three smaller structures for logistical reasons.

Mr. Smith and Ms. Shoemaker then fielded questions regarding the project. One CUSD mom wanted to know what would happen if a kid accidentally threw a baseball at a solar panel and smashed it. How long would it take before it was fixed, she wondered.

Mr. Smith noted that the solar arrays are very hard to break. You could aim a metal ball bearing, throwing it like a fastball, at one of the panels and it wouldn’t break. When there is damage to the solar arrays, whatever the cause, PFMG solar is required to repair it. The company typically does so within a day, he said.

The same mom expressed concern that installing solar at CHS campuses during this time might impact the fate of Measure G. She feels it’s important that the $58 million facilities bond, which is on the November ballot, pass because the schools are in poor condition.

Is it possible, she wondered, that some voters might think the schools have plenty of money, given the scope of the solar project? Ms. Shoemaker said the solution to that potential complication is for the district to make it clear they are leasing the solar panels with no money down.

A student from San Antonio High School expressed concern that SAHS would be losing some of its playing fields, affecting sports like soccer and volleyball. The school’s elevated solar array will be placed on the field next to its multi-use sports court.

Ms. Shoemaker noted that the SAHS sports court, where volleyball is played, would remain open during construction. Soccer might be impacted for the season, she said.

In the end, however, she said that the pros of the project outweigh the cons. SAHS Principal Sean Delgado—who is a champion of sports at the continuation school—worked with the CUSD facilities crew to determine the placement of the solar array. Spectators at the schools games will likely welcome the shade, Ms. Shoemaker said.

When Ms. Shoemaker was asked whether the installation of solar in the district will brighten Claremont’s chances for winning the $5 million Georgetown Energy Prize the city is vying for, the question was fielded by Peggy Kelly, chair of Sustainable Claremont’s Schools Action Group.

Quantitative data on the city’s reduction of its carbon footprint must be collected by the end of December and submitted to the prize committee at the start of February. At that point, the schools will not yet have realized any measurable gains such as lowered power bills or heightened solar output.

However, those judging the Georgetown Energy Prize also look at quantitative data, including new initiatives and changes in behavior that make contending cities greener, Ms. Kelly said. The fact that CUSD has undertaken a district-wide solar project will be duly noted, she said.

That was one of the reasons the district opted to move quickly with its solar program, which was just green-lighted by the state.

“We wanted to have shovels in the dirt by the end of the year,” Ms. Shoemaker said.

—Sarah Torribio


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