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Despite Setbacks, San Diego Unified School District Asserts Commitment to Clean Energy Alternatives

Citing safety concerns and the risk of fire, solar panels have been removed from the rooftops of 24 San Diego Unified School District buildings. The panels, which were manufactured and installed by Solar Integrated Technologies (SIT) in 2005, were found to have a number of defects that resulted in premature corrosion of the solar cells. The last of the defective panels were removed on August 31.

The removal comes nearly eight months after SIT, which was also responsible for maintenance of the solar roofs and panels, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. SIT’s parent company, Energy Conversion Devices, also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February of this year. The dual filings left Solar Power & Electric, the subsidiary of SIT that sold the power generated directly to the school district, with no resources to service or maintain the solar panels. 

Initially purchased for the San Diego Unified School District by GE Energy Financial Services, GE agreed to arrange and pay for the removal of the solar panels as soon as the problem was discovered. In a written statement, a spokesperson for General Electric said, “Although we were previously a passive investor in the project and therefore not legally obligated to remove the panels, we decided to act in the best interest of the community and contracted and paid for removal of the solar panels.”   

Drew Rowlands, Executive Director of Physical Plant Operations for the San Diego Unified School District, downplayed any significant economic impact that the district will face as a result of having to revert fully (at least temporarily) to San Diego Gas and Electric for power. “In the immediate future,” Rowlands said via written statement, “there will be minimal fiscal impacts to the district as a result of the recent removal of the solar panels.”

The solar panels, which had a total installed capacity of 4.3 MW, were responsible for only a modest percentage of the school district’s total yearly electricity consumption. “The energy produced by the district's solar systems represents nine or 10 percent of the total electric bill for a year,” Rowlands said. “The total costs are $12 million per year for the entire district. Therefore, the increased cost due to the reduction of solar energy production is nine or 10 percent, equally approximately $40,000.” 

Previously, an amount of $400,000 in estimated increased costs was reported by Union-Tribune San Diego, which Rowlands confirmed was wildly inaccurate. “The district paid Solar Integrated Technologies $700,000 to $800,000 a year for solar energy,” he said. “That cost is approximately the same cost for the purchase of energy from San Diego Gas and Electric.” 

Despite the problems with the solar panels and indicators of instability in the solar power industry, Rowlands asserts that the San Diego Unified School District is committed to pursuing new options in clean energy and a limited dependence on traditional gas and electricity.

“Even though we are removing older technology solar panels, we are bringing new technology into service,” Rowlands said. “We're putting new solar at 36 sites.” 

Tom Wright, Auxiliary Services Division Safety, Training, Personnel and Environmental Compliance Manager for the San Diego Unified School District, said the district plans to make additional requirements for future solar projects to verify the quality of the technology being employed.

Although the district’s energy projects are always facilitated through Power Purchase Agreements, which essentially leaves the technology up to the power supplier who owns the equipment, “The district plans to require the owner to provide conformation that time-tested technology is being used,” explained Wright. “It's likely that future systems would have to be crystalline glass panels (as these are the standard for solar panels), which have passed the test of time.”

Lead image: School bus via Shutterstock

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Vince Font is a freelance journalist specializing in the fields of renewable energy, high tech, travel, and entertainment. Read his blog at www.vincefont.com or follow him on Twitter @vincefont.

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