By Robert Nott
On their return to school in a couple of weeks, students, staffers and visitors at Capital High School will see a field of 600 sun-power panels — part of Santa Fe Public Schools’ effort to leave solar footprints at eight district schools.
At some schools, such as the new El Camino Real Academy off N.M. 599, the solar panels are installed as shade structures in parking lots. At Capital, they are being placed in an unused field between the campus and a nearby residential neighborhood. Consolidated Solar Technologies of Albuquerque began installing the solar panels at Capital High in July. The project should be complete by the end of August.
The Capital High portion of the solar initiative cost about $980,000 in capital outlay funds. But that investment can pay off down the line in energy savings of up to $45,000 per year. The solar panels have a 25-year warranty.
Lisa Randall, Energy and Water Conservation Program coordinator for the district, said SFPS already is seeing annual savings of about $115,000 in its electric bills from Public Service Company of New Mexico through other solar projects.
The district used $235,000 from a 2009 general obligation bond and another $2 million from the 2013 bond cycle to initiate solar projects at three new schools — Amy Biehl Community School, Nina Otero Community School and El Camino Real — as well as five older facilities: Capital, Santa Fe High, Piñon Elementary, El Dorado Community School and Gonzales Community School.
In some cases, the impact and savings are minimal. For instance, 11 Schott Solar panels mounted in the wall at Gonzales in January 2013 nets about $1,000 in savings each year.
At El Camino Real, 228 solar panels installed under a shaded parking canopy this past month are projected to save $20,000 per year. The impact is similar at Amy Biehl Community School at Rancho Viejo, where 288 panels installed in April 2013 save the district about $21,000 in a year.
Nationwide, many school districts are going solar. The Tucson Unified School District recently announced it is bringing solar energy to more than 40 of its schools and projecting $170,000 in savings the first year and more than $11 million in energy costs over 20 years. More than 200 public schools in California have incorporated some sort of energy-saving solar devices. The Lafayette school district in Louisiana installed four rooftop solar panel devices several years ago and projected savings of $500,000 over a period of 10 years.
The efforts are not without controversy. Some critics argue the up-front costs of installation are still too expensive to recoup energy costs, especially when calculations are done for maintenance and replacement of panels.
But Mariel Nanasi, executive director of Santa Fe-based New Energy Economy, said school districts are finding it more cost effective to go solar “than pay PNM in the long run. They are taking long-term planning into account, realizing savings and putting them back into the schools for other important needs: new teachers or art classes or whatever services their kids need.”
Plus, she said, students will get accustomed to the idea that “solar is the norm, and that is what they are going to demand from policymakers.”
Randall said cost and space limitations make it unrealistic for the district to entirely move into solar territory, but the district will continue to push for as many solar panels as it can. It may have to wait until the next general obligation bond cycle in 2017 for more money to finance that push.
In April, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recognized Amy Biehl Community School in Santa Fe as one of 47 schools nationwide to attain a Green Ribbon from the Education Department. The annual award acknowledges schools that prove they have reduced energy costs and created healthier environments for students, among other measures. Amy Biehl is the only school in New Mexico to receive that award.
On Friday, PNM honored Santa Fe Public Schools, along with four other business — The Home Depot, Brewer Oil, St. Elizabeth Shelter and the State Employees Credit Union — as the top energy-efficiency organizations in town.
On a related note, the school district reports that its annual water use, estimated at 55 million gallons in 2011, has dropped to less than 32 million for fiscal year 2014.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or email@example.com.