Educating Kids, Saving Energy
When the Dixie School District, in San Rafael, made a commitment to become more energy-efficient, the project quickly became an educational experience for everyone, from students and teachers in the classroom to administrative personnel and even the contractors who got involved.
Superintendent Tom Lohwasser explains that “green teams” in all of the district’s four schools had already been interested in how the schools could do a better job of cutting down on energy use, starting with simple things like turning off the lights when rooms were not in use.
That led to greater ambitions, and when members of the district-wide Green Team made a presentation to the school board about the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by being more energy-efficient, the board, says Lohwasser, decided to do something about it.
“They wanted to show that this would be good for the kids and the community,” he reports. “But,” he adds, “we knew from the start that we had to do this in a way that didn’t take any money away from education in the classroom.”
With a planning grant from the Marin Community Foundation, under its Strategic Initiative to reduce the impact of climate change, the district began the process of putting photovoltaic panels on roofs at all district schools.
This meant putting financing in place—a combination of bonds, rebates from PG&E, the grant from MCF, and a separate loan from the Foundation’s Loan Fund—finding a qualified contractor, and dealing with the many challenges of state requirements.
He adds, “This project was about a whole lot more than attaching things to the roof. The panels are almost like the final decoration, after dealing with all the other construction issues.” As an example, he says that since each roof where the panels were installed was different, that presented different construction challenges at each site.
The results, he says, will be worth it. The goal is to have 80% of the district’s energy use provided by the almost 2,000 panels that have been installed. And while that won’t necessarily mean cost savings right away—that might take several years—he says that at some point, “we won’t be paying a PG&E bill.”
Plus, this effort translates into a potential reduction of carbon emissions of at least 358 metric tons per year.
From the beginning, this effort—one of the largest of its kind in the county—was driven by students’ interests in energy efficiency and the school board’s willingness to take a leadership role in this project. Plus, the photovoltaic project will be incorporated into the schools’ ongoing science studies and other environmental efforts, like recycling. Lohwasser explains that once the solar panels are in use, students will be able to track the schools’ energy use on a daily basis through the Internet.
Already, first-graders received a visit from the foreman of the construction project, who brought a solar panel with him to explain how it works. Lohwasser says that the students’ questions showed how much they’re interested in solar energy, even at their age, with questions like “What happens if it’s not sunny?” and “What happens if lightning hits one?”
In the end, Lohwasser comes back to the notion that this project was “the right thing to do.” “The kids brought this to us, and the board’s response was, ‘Lets figure out how to do it.’ Everyone got on board. We all learned a lot of lessons, but when it’s up and running, we’re all going to be very proud.”