SFPS installs solar panels to cut schools’ energy costs

Peter Scholtz, left, and Ryan Schneider of Positive Energy make adjustments Tuesday to the solar panels on the north side of Santa Fe High School. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Clad in a hard hat and safety vest, Lisa Randall directed a crew at the Siringo Road entrance to Santa Fe High School. Drivers slowed down to watch the scene earlier this week — the installation of a small city of solar panels, one of four new arrays going up at the campus.

Once the panels are fully operational, they will generate about 900 kilowatts of power and produce about 65 percent of Santa Fe High’s annual energy needs. They also will provide electricity to the district’s nearby administrative buildings and Chaparral Elementary School.

“It feels fantastic to save so much energy,” said Randall, coordinator of Santa Fe Public Schools’ Energy and Water Conservation Program. “Our job is to prepare our kids for a healthy, viable future, and this is part of fulfilling that obligation to our students.”

The $2.6 million project is funded by a Clean Energy Revenue Bond from the New Mexico Finance Authority that the Santa Fe school board approved earlier this year. The bond program is aimed at projects that help reduce utility costs for state agencies and public schools.

The remaining funds from the $2.96 million bond will be used to install 117 kilowatts of solar power at Ramirez Thomas Elementary School later this year.

The district will use the money it is saving in electrical costs to pay back the New Mexico Finance Authority at a rate of about $170,000 per year over 25 years — the life expectancy of the panels.

The district has installed solar arrays at nine other schools — El Camino Real Academy; Amy Biehl, Nina Otero, El Dorado and Gonzales community schools; Acequia Madre, Atalaya and Piñon elementary schools; and Capital High School. The solar power is part of the district’s ongoing energy conservation initiative, with a goal of reaching carbon neutrality at schools by cutting energy and water use, food waste and utility bills — and then transferring the savings back into classrooms.

Randall said the district contracted with SunPower by Santa Fe-based Positive Energy Solar, which is installing the panels at Santa Fe High this week, to access the nearly $3 million bond.

Speaking by phone, Positive Energy Solar CEO Regina Wheeler said this is the first time any school district has taken advantage of the state’s bond program to fund both energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects. Robert Coalter, CEO of the New Mexico Finance Authority, confirmed that.

The program, Wheeler said, does two things: “It fixes the long-term energy costs so you are not subject to whatever price changes happen on the grid. And it eliminates a big piece of your operating expenses and allows you to spend more money on kids, teachers and operational programs.”

Under former Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez, the school district vowed in 2010 to find ways to cut energy costs. Since the district’s conservation initiative began in the 2010-11 school year, Santa Fe schools have reduced their reliance on natural gas by 24 percent and have produced more than 616,700 kilowatt-hours of solar power, Randall said.

Water use is down by more than 40 percent, and 14 schools have implemented food-waste composting programs. The district also has cut electrical costs by 11 percent in that time period.

Student Irie Charity, who will attend the Early College Opportunities magnet school on the South Campus of Santa Fe High this fall, said the solar panels are “an amazing idea, especially living in New Mexico, because our sun is a powerful resource. It’s a great idea so we can spend less money on our electricity bill and more money bringing the students more educational tools.”

She said Santa Fe High and Early College Opportunities students are aware of the solar power upgrade.

“I’ve heard a lot of them saying, ‘Hey, have you seen what’s going on at the high school?’ They’re all driving by it and talking about it,” Charity said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.