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San Ramon Valley Unified School District installs 10k photovoltaic panels at five schools

In a move that is proving to be controversial with some, some California school districts are looking to a high-tech way to save money, even if the payback won't be achieved until well over a decade later. CNN is reporting that some California school districts are looking to low-interest federal loans to install solar panels on schools.

CNN singled out the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, which has installed roughly 10,000 photovoltaic panels at five of its 35 total schools at a cost of $23 million. Under the most optimistic projections, the photovoltaic panels would offset energy usage at the schools by 67 to 75 percent. 

According to spokesman Terry Koehne, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District will pay back the loans courtesy of the energy savings from using the solar installations. However, this won't be a quick payback for the school system -- it will take roughly 16 years to break even on the photovoltaic panels.

Koehne, however, points to the upside of embarking on this expensive venture; "It's pure profit after that. And following that, we're going to start realizing savings of $2 (million), $3 (million), $4 million a year."

Like many schools across the nation, California schools are facing a serious budget crunch. Less money means fewer teachers, fewer teaching assistants, and more students per classroom. By making this move now, the school district is hoping that the future payoff will allow it use its resources more wisely. 

Lower production costs, thanks to stiff competition from Chinese companies, is causing a surge in the adoption of solar panels. One of the causalities of the race to the bottom in panel costs was Silicon Valley-based Solyndra. The company received a rushed $535 million loan courtesy of the Obama industry during 2009 in order to bolster its operations.

However, the company two years later filed for bankruptcy and axed over 1,000 employees. Interestingly, an email that was sent out before final approval of the loan was granted rightly projected that the company would run out of money by September 2011. 

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RE: americans are joke
By Real_Time on 9/18/2011 10:22:30 PM , Rating: 1
Considering the panels will lose around 3-5% efficiency in the first year and then about 1% every year after that to a useful life of around 25 years, the 16 year calculation is a bit of an overly-optimistic assumption

You make a couple of invalid assumptions here:

The rate of sensitivity decay of a photovoltaic panel depends on many factors, not the least of which is the type of material the panel is made of. Making specific claims about this degradation, without knowing precisely which panels were used, invalidates your claims.

Your argument also implies that the 16-year break-even result neglects the inherent degradation of the panels. The company manufacturing the panels being installed for the school districts is SunPower Corporation. These people provide panels for home, government, and manufacturing. It would follow that this company is well aware of the inherent degradation and provided statistics to the school district to help them determine the break even. If you are so dubious of their claim, why not contact the School Board and ask how they arrived at their claim of 16 years?

Your brand of pessimism, while commonplace with internet comments, is no less ignorant sounding. These types of comments do nothing but serve up devisiveness in a world more and more satisfied with its own self-rightousness.

RE: americans are joke
By jtemplin on 9/18/2011 11:58:36 PM , Rating: 1
Amen brother

RE: americans are joke
By fishman on 9/19/2011 7:29:36 AM , Rating: 3
So, you always believe what a salesman tells you?

RE: americans are joke
By Real_Time on 9/19/2011 10:58:38 AM , Rating: 2
Begging your pardon, but we aren't exactly talking about a $500 HP printer at a Best Buy here. The company in question has a track record of propriety and excellence. I am merely pointing out the fact that 3-5% is an invalid assumption.

Do I always believe what a salesman tells me? No. I research facts and make up my own mind given all the information available. In the case of SunPower v. fishman, however, I am going to side with the successful corporation rather than the peanut gallery.

RE: americans are joke
By drycrust3 on 9/19/2011 3:17:26 PM , Rating: 3
The problem here is the experts on this system are the company representatives, e.g. sales people and engineers. They are the ones who know the best environment for this type of product, but also the worst environment.
The best solution would be to get sales people and engineers from other industries to provide input so at least you have some other options presented to you, and they can tell you potential pitfalls that lie ahead.
To me the real killer is the 16 year break even point is way too long for a commercial product; it sort of smacks of an air of optimism and being just marginally cheaper than the current set up. And if, after 16 years, the schools haven't broken even then the supplier just needs to say "But we didn't factor in that blah blah blah would happen" and they are off the hook.
If those schools were to contact their other local energy providers I think they could provide solutions that would give them at least the equivalent savings, and probably better savings. For example, in the next 16 years LED lamps will have developed to the point that they will have replaced incandescent and fluorescent lighting. They could also do things like insulate their hot water cylinders better, which again would easily provide a 3 to 5% saving when implemented, and by using reflective and double glazed windows they could easily reduce their heating and cooling costs. The cost to do these things is a bit higher now, but would probably have the same 16 year break even point.
To me, these panels will probably end up being attached to the UPS system, which runs the computers etc, which isn't a heavy user of electricity; and that the heavy user things like hot water and air conditioning will still be done by the mains. In short, you will have spent a lot of money and achieved little.

“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls

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