Largest US school solar contract redirects money to education

The largest school solar project in the United States, announced Thursday, will provide approximately 95 percent of the energy and reduce utility bills by about $3 million a year for the Mount Diablo Unified School District in northern California, according to a school district official.

The 11.2 mega-watt contract with SunPower stands out against all other school contracts in the country.

“We really wanted to get as much off the grid as we could with this project,” said Pete Pedersen, who retired last year as the district’s assistant superintendent of administrative services and is now working as the bond administrator in order to see the project through to the end.

Voters approved a $348 million bond program, maturing in 2017, last June, and this is the first big project on the docket.

Construction will begin at the start of next year, Pedersen said. Photovoltaic solar panels will be installed on every school and facility, save two small ones, in three phases—each including 17 structures.

Pedersen was working with SunPower installers Friday to plan where and how the panels will be installed.

The district started looking into installing solar about five years ago, Pedersen said. But there was no money. Administrators considered and looked into power purchase agreements, but didn’t think it was a good fit.

After the bond passed last year, there was money to do it right, Pedersen said. Now the impact the improvement will have on annual expenditures and the general fund balance will be huge.

“With all of the budget cuts,” Pedersen said, “having this impact on the general fund, we may be able to reverse if not bring back some of the programs we would have otherwise had to eliminate.”

While going solar is great for the bottom line and makes tremendously good economic sense, especially with more than $17 million of solar rebates coming back to the district, there is another benefit, Pedersen said.

Going solar makes good philosophical sense. It allows the school district to be a role model for the community, he said.

“This is something I’ve been wanting for a long, long time,” Pedersen said.

It’s a large part of why he stayed on after retiring; he wants to see the project completed.

“This is really a legacy,” he said.

Pictured: The view from Walnut Creek to Mount Diablo, courtesy of There's no photo credit data on the site. If you took this photo, let us know so we can credit you.