Solar Power for Schools, Jails

Solar panels do double duty providing shade for parking lots.

As energy costs continue to soar, cash-strapped public agencies throughout California have turned to a source once considered too expensive: solar power.

In San Diego County on Monday, officials flipped the switch on a new solar installation that will provide 14% of the power needed for a major jail complex.

Similar efforts are underway at state prisons, schools, universities and libraries throughout Southern California, as well as other parts of the state.

“There’s an increasing investment by schools and other public agencies,” said Bill Kelly, a managing director of San Jose-based SunPower Corp. “Because the cost of energy from solar is getting increasingly competitive with standard power sources.”

The company has built solar installations at 90 schools so far this calendar year, including several Los Angeles Unified School District campuses.

 Part of the reason it’s getting cheaper to install solar is that public agencies are increasingly turning to an unusual form of construction to build their projects.

 Instead of putting the panels on the roof, an expensive process that is constrained by the size and shape of a building’s roof, municipalities are instead building what are essentially gigantic carports over their parking lots.


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The dappled shade from these outsized gazebos is actually created by the solar panels themselves, which are mounted on tall posts, collecting the sunshine that normally would bake the cars below.

State and federal incentives have made the cost of installing solar-powered systems even more cost-efficient. Agencies can finance their projects with interest-free loans, and often obtain rebates as well.

The San Diego installation, which is expected to save the county $1.4 million in power costs over the next 20 years, is built over the parking lot of the East Mesa Detention Complex in Otay Mesa.

“This used to be a bare parking lot, said San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, whose district includes the jail. “Now it’s generating energy whenever the sun’s out.”

Like an increasing number of solar installations by public agencies, the San Diego project was built as a shade cover, hovering over the jail’s massive parking lot like a mass of high-tech latticework.

The company that built the project, SunEdison of Belmont, has installed solar collectors at prisons, jails and universities throughout the state.

A five megawatt facility at a prison at North Kern State Prison in the Bakersfield area is expected come on line next month, and the company is under contract to build one in Los Angeles County at a prison in the high desert.

It has built facilities at several universities in the Cal State system, including Cal State San Bernardino and Cal State Dominguez Hills, according to Mathew Dickey, the company’s managing director for public sector business.

Not all of the projects are in parking lots, Dickey said. But public agencies do have the advantage of space, whether in their parking areas or other parts of the property.

“The reason jails are attractive is they often have space,” Dickey said. “It allows us to do a ground mount facility, which is the least expensive to install.”

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