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Tom Schueneman headshot

How One School District's Solar Array Raises Student Test Scores

Getting an education in America isn't getting any easier. Battling steadily declining budgets, cut programs, and teacher layoffs, public school districts need any advantage they can find to offset many challenges.

The absolute imperative of basic education is beyond dispute. Providing the tools, policies, and money to achieve it are far from assured.

Here comes the sun

School systems, both public and private, are realizing the advantages of incorporating clean tech and sustainability in their development plans. A previous TriplePundit story describes one of the first net-zero school buildings at the private Putney School in Vermont. Today, we look to Antelope Valley Union High School District's recently commissioned 9.6 megawatt PV solar system. A much-needed project that provides power, reduces costs, and even helps raise test scores and send kids to college.
Making large-scale solar installations work economically for cash-strapped school districts is the business of southern California-based PsomasFMG, and for executive VP Paul Mikos, there couldn't be a more "fun" business to be in.

I had the opportunity last month to share in the fun with Mikos at the Intersolar North America conference in San Francisco.

"When my kids went to school, California schools were the best in the country," says Mikos, "now they're around 47th.” To be fair, the latest Quality Counts assessment report (pdf) places California K-12 public schools in 30th place, not as "bleak" as 47th, but still a far cry from when Mikos' kids were in school (or, for that matter, when I was a student in the 70's).

PsomasFMG was founded in 2009 as a strategic partnership between Psomas, an engineering and construction firm with 65 years of experience, and First Management Group (FMG), a team of four veteran CEOs with a broad range of business, marketing, and management experience. PsomasFMG develops turnkey solar power systems for local governments, commercial entities, and public agencies. School districts are a particular “target” for the company. With declining solar subsidies in California, the economic viability of solar is increasingly dependent on driving down system and process costs - “finance is key” to FMG's approach, say Mikos.

Solar an "ideal solution" for Antelope Valley schools

Located in the high desert of northern Los Angeles County, Antelope Valley is the quintessential sprawling suburban bedroom community built in the 80’s and now hit hard by unemployment and mortgage defaults. “All the school districts are suffering tremendously,” says Mikos.

Despite the hard economic times - indeed because of them - Antelope Valley Union High School District (AVUHSD) put 9.6 megawatts of PV solar power online late last year with a system consisting of 40,000 panels on 10 sites. Financed through private investment, the $50 million project required no up front cost for AVUHSD and is budgeted to save the district $40 million over the 20-year term of the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). The system provides 80 percent of the AVUHSD’s power requirements.

Antelope Valley is ideal for a large solar system, with its penetrating sun and unobstructed wind. “You can’t get better weather for solar than Antelope Valley,” Mikos says. The sun provides the power and the wind helps keep the inverters and other equipment cool, keeping it all running at the high end of its rated efficiency.

One key advantage PsomasFMG can offer it's clients is guidance through the minefield of federal, state, and local solar rebates and incentives. The declining solar incentives and rebates are becoming “so low,” Mikos explains, that building to capacity doesn’t provide the payoff as in places like Germnay, with their aggressive Feed-in Tariff that allows excess production to be sold at a premium. In California, building to 80 percent capacity over a 20-year PPA makes the most sense, “especially for schools,” explains Mikos. With fluctuating student bodies and other year-to-year variables, consumption levels rarely remain the same from one year to the next. Not scaling to 100 percent leaves room for those fluctuations without requiring a school district to buy power they don’t need (and that they can't sell).

"The way we do that is we give them a set price on their electricity which they buy (based on a sophisticated initial energy analysis)... then they have a slight escalator every year on that and we measure it against predictable Southern California Edison rates which have over the last 30 years in that segment gone up about 6.7 percent. So we lower that 6.7 percent and try to give them a delta between the two."

Demonstrating solar power as a path to reducing expenses is initially an easy sell for school districts struggling with their budgets. Everyone loves the idea, but seeing a project through to fruition requires someone within the organization - a “champion” as Mikos describes it- to shepherd the project through all the “rigamarole” involved in public entities.

In the case of AVUHSD that champion was the deputy superintendent, who worked closely with the entire team as they installed at multiple locations throughout the active school year without any significant disruption in school activities.

In fact, the installation of solar power outside the classroom window served as an important teaching aide.

Solar goes to school

The advantages of solar power in schools reaches beyond just the power generated from the solar panels. All that solar energy flows into the classroom in more ways than one.

"Throwing the switch" on the system in December of last year entailed a kick-off celebration at one of the district's high schools, complete with marching band and cheerleaders. Just to make the event that much sweeter, PsomasFMG made a donation to the school's band fund - something I'm particularly glad to hear, having spent a porton of my youth knocking on doors trying to raise money for my own musical education.

But after the pom-poms and trombones are put away, there's the question "how does a PV solar system work?"

There's probably no better way to teach math and algebra skills than relating it to real-world applications, and any solar system is designed with the same mathematical and algebra principals taught in class. PsomasFMG worked with educators to develop a "solar curriculum" for algebra and science classes. Designed to gauge progress of both high and low level students, a week-long trial period showed a 60 percent improvement in test scores across the board. Suddenly it was no longer just dry math problems, but directly connected to their own lives. "They felt involved," say Mikos, "they saw a reason" to study.

Building on that success, school administrators plan to roll-out the program to all schools this coming school year. PsomasFMG and San Francisco-based GCL solar have also established the Raleigh Wright Solar Scholarship Fund for top AVUHSD students, funding $80,000 in scholarships over the next four years.

Do good, have fun

Mikos exudes the confident enthusiasm of someone who loves what he does. A successful businessman, Mikos wasn't "looking for a job" when he and his management partners started PsomasFMG. "But there's only so much golf you can play," Mikos quips. His criteria for getting involved in another venture was simple:

  • Have fun

  • Do good

  • Make profit

It's a triple bottom line that, in the case of Mikos and his colleagues at PsomasFMG, helps to grow our most valuable natural resource - the young minds that will inherit the world we leave them. They'll need all the help they can get.

Image credit: Forbes

Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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