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April 04, 2012

High School District Catching Rays and Racking up Savings


Last October, a new $4 million solar array began generating electricity at Oxnard High School in Ventura County, California. The 6-acre array, which shifts with the sun, will effectively end the school's reliance on fossil fuels while dramatically reducing the school's energy costs, freeing up funds for teachers, facilities, computers, books, and other educational resources.


"Oxnard High has been operating at 104 percent of capacity, meaning it's feeding electricity back into the grid," says Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) Superintendent Dr. Gabe Soumakian. "And the system will still generate electricity even when it's cloudy."

But it's not just Oxnard High School that's going green; all six OUHSD schools are installing solar arrays. Rio Mesa High School just became the second school in the district to flip the switch and activate its new solar array, located on top of a parking structure.

"This investment in renewable energy is not only part of our school district's initiative to go green, it's going to save us significant dollars," Soumakian says."

Once all six OUHSD solar systems are up and running, they will generate more than 6 million kilowatt hours of clean, renewable energy each year—an amount equal to the average annual energy consumption of 10,000 California households. The school district anticipates it will save $36 million over the next 25 years, with energy savings repaying the total cost of outfitting all six high schools in less than 15 years.

"Economic forecasts indicate we need to come up with solutions other than just paying for the grid," Soumakian says. "Electricity is only going to get more expensive."

The six OUHSD solar arrays will offset more than 4,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year—the equivalent of taking 870 passenger vehicles off the road.

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg, courtesy of the Ventura County Star

The solar arrays are just one component of a district-wide initiative to go green. "We would love to go to electric cars and trucks for our fleet in the coming years, and we're looking at technology where we don't have to print everything," says Soumakian. "We want to build a technology infrastructure that will support wireless education, textbooks, and multiple resources online. The district is moving toward the concept of BYOD: Bring Your Own Device. Most kids will eventually have an iPhone or an iPad, and we want them to be able to access our systems by building a very strong infrastructure."


Oxnard High School Principal Eric Riegert says it sends a powerful message when educational leaders take steps to become environmental leaders in their communities. "By becoming environmentally sound, our district is leading by example and becoming a green showcase for the rest of our community and the region," he says.

"Going green is the only way to ensure that future generations will have a clean and safe environment in which to grow and thrive," Riegert says. "Conventional energy sources will soon be a thing of the past as our nation pursues ways to be productive yet environmentally sustainable, and Oxnard High School will be seen as a leader."

The solar array at Oxnard High has an educational component, too. The school now has a Green Technology Academy, and the school district is building a curriculum in collaboration with Sun Power, the company that is installing all six solar arrays.

"We're creating green educational lessons and classes so our students will learn about future employment options in green tech and gain skills to work and lead in the renewable energy society of the early-to-mid-21st century," Riegert says. "As educators, we know that 'green' equals 'smart.' The financial savings from solar power will just be a byproduct of being 'smart' leaders."


At Rio Mesa High School, Principal Ray Gonzales says his students are excited to attend a solar-powered school.

"Eighty percent of our energy use is now covered by solar energy, and we plan to increase the percentage to over hundred percent," Gonzales says. "The students and the community take pride in the fact that we are part of the green energy solution. The cirriculum opportunities are exciting, and as the principal I'll be working with our Science and Career Technical Education Departments to make sure we fully explore these opportunities."

Stephen McFarland, below, the facilities director for OUHSD, is overseeing the installation of all six solar arrays. "There's a kiosk in the lobby that gives real-time data to let students know how many trees have been saved, how many car miles not driven, how much energy is being produced in real time," he says. "Kids are always standing by the kiosk and looking amazed."

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg, courtesy of the Ventura County Star

Similar kiosks are planned for all six district high schools once the arrays are up and running. "It's the wave of the future to save as many natural resources as we can," says McFarland. "We're saving resources for the future, and going solar makes sound fiscal sense. The investment will pay off in both environmental and fiscal resources for decades to come."


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