Oakland Unified shows its commitment to a sustainable future

By:Renee Solari

May 18, 2015

Oakland Unified School District Solar Dedication

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In February 2015, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in California, USA, showed its deep commitment to a sustainable future with an exciting solar dedication ceremony at Castlemont High School. It was a celebration of the installation of 3.6 megawatts of rooftop and parking lot solar power systems at 16 of OUSD’s campuses, the culmination of more than four years of intensive effort and collaboration among district and government officials, facilities staff, teachers and students, community members, solar engineers, and many other advocates to bring this large-scale public school renewable energy initiative to life.

As Program Manager of Education Services for SunPower Corporation, the company that installed OUSD’s solar energy systems, I feel extremely privileged to be a part of solar dedications like these. It’s the same kind of pride and happiness that wells up inside me at graduations. In fact, I think of solar dedication ceremonies as graduations of a kind. It’s a chance to reflect on years of hard work and partnership, to congratulate each other on a major accomplishment and to think about what comes next.

OUSD’s solar dedication gave the leaders of this clean energy initiative the opportunity to highlight the significant economic, educational and environmental benefits the solar energy system will provide for students, teachers, community members and taxpayers for many years to come.

Economic benefits

OUSD is a large and ethnically diverse district, serving over 37,000 K-12 students in 86 schools. As most public school districts do, OUSD strives to optimize its budget in ways that minimize waste and maximize students’ success. To that end, the district’s solar program is expected to significantly reduce the district’s annual electricity costs over the next 25 years or more. OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson further explains:

“Oakland Unified School District wants to reduce its impact on the environment through the use of clean renewable energy, which also dramatically reduces utility expenses and energy use, providing us with the savings to enhance academic programs and support our teachers.”

Reduced operating costs will allow OUSD to repurpose savings to the classroom. That’s fantastic all by itself. But there are also clear educational and environmental benefits as well.

Educational benefits

The math, technology, science and engineering behind OUSD’s rooftop and carport solar systems are being brought into the classroom in the form of a solar technology curriculum from SunPower. This STEM-based curriculum helps prepare students for careers in the clean energy economy with relevant learning opportunities that will help students become college- and career-ready.

Perhaps the most meaningful part of this solar dedication ceremony was hearing from Ronye and Sandra, two high school seniors, who are already deeply immersed in learning about solar technology and who are clearly eager to carry on the legacy of sustainable energy development.

Students Ronye Cooper and Sandra Vivian-Calderon excitedly flip the big switch at the OUSD solar dedication ceremony. (Photo by Renee Solari.)

Environmental benefits

And, of course, the environmental benefits of OUSD’s solar program are numerous as well. According to estimates provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the OUSD solar power systems will avoid production of almost 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, which is the equivalent of removing close to 12,000 cars from California’s roads over the next 25 years!

Looking to the future: the solar master plan

Perhaps the most difficult part of OUSD’s solar journey was making the case for buying solar panels. They had to convince key stakeholders that it was a reasonable investment to make. Leaders accomplished this by getting a Solar America Grant through Kyoto USA and developing a Solar Master Plan with that program’s amazing volunteers.

Jody London, Vice President of the OUSD Board of Education, emphasizes how many heroes there were in getting the program to this point, and points out that there is still quite a way to go in building out the district’s ambitious Solar Master Plan. After all, this initial implementation phase put solar panels on just 16 of the district’s 86 campuses. But the return on the district’s investment is already clear with utilities savings already in the millions.

James Harris, President of the OUSD Board of Education summarized the crowd’s excitement and hope for a more sustainable future very well when he said, “This is just the beginning. This is what it means to be a catalyst for change.”