San Diego Unified is prepping to spend a huge chunk of school bond cash on solar projects.

District leaders are eyeing cash from Propositions S and Z, school bonds meant to support repairs and upgrades across the district. They plan to spend much of the $37 million they’ve penciled in for school energy-efficiency upgrades on solar projects.

They’re hoping for a big payoff on that investment. In January, district officials guessed they might save $4.25 million annually with 10 megawatts of solar power.

In the last five years, San Diego Unified’s added 4.5 megawatts of solar power at 37 sites that help offset higher-priced electricity it’d otherwise get from San Diego Gas & Electric. It’s paid for about 10 percent of the district’s energy through so-called power purchase agreements, which allow the district to essentially rent panels and pay an outside company for the power they produce. The rate the district has paid using the agreements has been on average about 32 percent less than it’d pay SDG&E.

The bottom line, said the district’s bond program chief Lee Dulgeroff at a meeting earlier this year: “We’d love to spend less money on energy and more money on teaching and learning.”

The district’s set some big goals on that front, both from an environmental and a financial perspective.

A sustainability plan approved in January calls for the district to cover its own power needs by 2030, and perhaps even disconnect from SDG&E altogether (as we’ve found, that’s easier said than done). A separate district-wide Climate Action Plan is expected to include a pledge that the district will get all its power from renewable sources by 2035.

The district’s still hashing out how it’ll get there.

The sustainability plan, based on the recommendations of a 26-member advisory board of district and local environmental leaders, calls for San Diego Unified to create a solar master plan, analyze potential savings and schedule solar installations throughout the district. It also suggests the district look into whether to use bond funds to buy out its existing power purchase agreements so it can own the systems rather than renting.

Owning is also the plan for several new systems the district wants to build – it already has plans for nine.

The district’s applied for state incentives to help bankroll solar installations at eight schools and is preparing to solicit bids for those projects later this summer. Construction’s expected to start next year.

The district’s also planning to use another source of money to offset about 75 percent of the electricity needs at its power-guzzling refrigerator facility, which houses the district’s frozen food. State officials will give the district nearly $900,000 for that project using funds from Proposition 39, a statewide measure approved by voters in 2012 that closed a corporate tax loophole and threw some new cash at school energy efficiency projects.

“The only way to offset that is to put a solar system on,” said Darin Vey, the district’s utilities program supervisor.

Since Prop. Z was approved in November 2012, the district has sunk bond cash – including money from Prop. S and a 1998 measure – into three solar projects. The largest is at Jonas Salk Elementary, a new school in Mira Mesa set to open next month. The district estimates the system could cover up to 34 percent of the school’s energy needs.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the location of Jonas Salk Elementary. It is in Mira Mesa.

This is part of our quest on whether solar will pay off for San Diego. Check out our previous post, In Search of All That Solar Red Tape the City Apparently Cut, here.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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