Santa Barbara Selects Winner in School Microgrid RFP

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The Santa Barbara, California, school district has agreed to move forward with contracting for 14 solar facilities, including six solar microgrids with Engie Services US.

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By lovelyday12/Shutterstockcom

The Santa Barbara Unified School District board is slated to vote on a 28-year power purchase agreement with Engie at a November meeting, Steve Vizzolini, the school district’s director of facilities and modernization said during a Sept. 22 school board meeting.

Engie will design, build, own and operate the solar facilities and microgrids.

The pending contract with Engie is a result of a request for proposals that drew eight qualified bids. The names of the bidders and the details of the power purchase agreement may be released in November when the board votes on the contract, according to Rosana Francescato, a spokeswoman for the Clean Coalition, which helped run the solicitation.

The project totals close to 5 MW of solar and 5 MWh of battery storage.

School expects savings, avoided costs

The school board unanimously agreed to pay Engie $800,000 in upfront costs in exchange for a fixed price power purchase agreement. The board considered an option with no upfront payment, but that would have added a roughly two percent annual escalator.

The school district expects to save about $7.8 million in electricity costs over the life of the contract. It also expects to reap $6.5 million in resiliency costs that it would have had to spend on backup generators, according to Vizzolini.

The school district may also be able to earn money by participating in wholesale markets run by the California Independent System Operator, Vizzolini told the school board.

Vizzolini said the solar panels will produce about 90% of the district’s power needs, helping offset expected rate hikes from Southern California Edison, the district’s electric utility.

The project meets the school district’s sustainability goals by avoiding greenhouse gas emissions while providing community shelters during emergencies, Vizzolini said.

Solar microgrids for critical loads

During power outages, the planned microgrids will fully supply the school district’s critical infrastructure such as refrigerators and data systems, according to Vizzolini. The critical loads represent about 10% of the district’s overall load.

The microgrids will be designed to provide 80% up time for priority systems like communications and internet access and 25% up time for full site operations, Vizzolini said.

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Engie expects to start building the project in June and bring it online by January 2022, Vizzolini said.

The solar panels will be set up over parking lots, with two being built next to playgrounds, Vizzolini said, noting that building rooftop solar would lead to a multi-year permitting process.

The solar canopies will be designed to facilitate the addition of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, according to the Clean Coalition.

The pending power purchase agreement is a model for other school districts around the United States, according to Craig Lewis, Clean Coalition executive director, a non-profit group focused on renewable energy and grid modernization.

Gen180 sees strong growth for school-based solar
solar microgrids

Santa Rita Union School District is also among the growing number of schools adding solar Photo courtesy NantEnergy

The Santa Barbara school district is part of a trend of schools adding solar across the United States, according to a report released in mid-September.

About 7,330 US schools have solar panels, up 81% from 2014, according to the report from Generation180, a non-profit group supporting renewable energy. The school-based capacity jumped to 1,365 MW from 560 MW in the same period, roughly in line with the pace of nonresidential solar growth, the group said.

California has the most school-based solar capacity at 616 MW, followed by New Jersey at 182 MW, Arizona at 125 MW and Massachusetts at 71 MW, according to the report.

About 7,330 US schools have solar panels, up 81% from 2014, according to the report from Generation180.

Almost 80% of school-based projects are financed via power purchase agreements with the school districts paying no upfront costs, according to the report, which said K-12 schools spend about $8 billion a year on electricity.

The report pointed to the Santa Barbara microgrid project as an example of schools looking to reduce power outages. 

“Solar with battery storage and microgrids provide backup power during grid outages, preventing classroom disruptions,” the report said. “Schools with these technologies easily convert into emergency community shelters during natural disasters.”

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