By Sandra Gramley, AIA, LEED ap BD+C
At Platt/Whitelaw, we’re helping empower schools in more ways than one. While school design and modernization have long been part of our work product, some recent San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) directives have us literally powering schools.
As of September 2020, 7,332 K-12 schools throughout the nation use solar power. This number represents approximately 5% of all schools nationwide. The Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools report goes on to list the top five states for schools using solar power: California, New Jersey, Arizona, Massachusetts and Indiana.
It’s no surprise that the Golden State, especially with Southern California’s abundant sunshine, factors large on that list. Locally, SDUSD, California’s second-largest school district, is creating one of the largest distributed solar energy plants in the United States, according to news released by AMSOLAR Corporation.
Engie Services reported that SDUSD is expected to achieve $9.08 million in energy savings over the life of its solar program. As California’s second largest school district, SDUSD is a leading example of what schools can do to practice energy efficiency.
It’s not just other school districts that pay attention—it’s also the students themselves. SDUSD students can learn about environmental responsibility and solar energy through onsite science and education programs that incorporate these solar installations in the curriculum.
Platt/Whitelaw Architects is very proud to be one of two San Diego architecture firms providing its services to help implement SDUSD’s ambitious goals to create solar energy at every one of its more than 200 school campus as well as various administrative facilities. Bond measures passed by local voters made this possible.
The District has also worked with Sage Renewable Energy Consulting, an independent energy consulting and project management firm based in San Rafael, California, that provides public agencies with energy expertise to plan, build and manage solar, storage and efficiency projects.
Our architects are providing criteria design to be used by design/build contractors for parking lot and playground shelters topped with solar panels at fourteen schools. Platt/Whitelaw staff is now designing for twelve more sites, some of which are administrative support facilities, including a transportation center where the solar panels will support the District’s plans to electrify its bus fleet.
Performing this work during the pandemic initially meant delays as some of the project team members were unable to assess the campuses while they were completely closed to the public. Ultimately, campuses were opened to limited personnel, and installation became much easier without having to accommodate students on site during construction. Overall, projects are completing on schedule.
The design work comes with some challenges. Most of the solar arrays are mounted on shade shelters, so architects need to consider path of travel so that playgrounds and parking lots can remain accessible under Title 24 standards.
Solar installation standards must be considered in the design, too. Panels need to be level rather than conforming to the slope of the ground below.
Solar panels have been critical for defraying energy costs from cooling classrooms. Fortunately, the cost savings goes beyond covering just air conditioning.
By lowering operating costs, school districts boost their budgets for costs associated with altering instructional programs for distance or hybrid learning, hiring more teachers, updating and expanding book supplies and more.
SDUSD’s energy savings program also included conversion to LED lighting and HVAC system upgrades. In 2015, the SDUSD’s Board of Education adopted climate mitigation and adaptation goals to achieve 100% renewable energy use by 2030 and various other strategies to increase environmental responsibility.
Ten years shy of that time horizon, SDUSD has seen dramatic results. According to Distributed Energy, “the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) lays claim to having one of the lowest utility costs per student in the country.” The District has reduced its energy usage by 25% since putting in place energy efficient strategies.
We’re honored to help the District achieve its climate mitigation and adaptation goals and to play a part in creating teaching opportunities for SDUSD’s more than 135,000 students.