Solar Comes to Napa

Teachers tend to get most of the credit — or blame — for the learning that takes place in a classroom but there are others who play a significant, although seldom noticed, role in students’ success.
Among these behind-the-scenes people are the facilities employees at the Napa Valley Unified School District who make sure school children spend their days in buildings that are safe, comfortable and cost-effective.
This year, as soon as school was out for summer break, they began installing solar panels at Napa High School, Vintage High School and the Napa Education Center in their phase one plan. Phase two, beginning next year, will include solar at more schools to make buildings more cost effective, officials said.
With energy prices soaring, “cost-effective” means “energy-efficient” but upgrading facilities for energy efficiency can be costly. When it is necessary to spend money to save money, what is an organization to do?
They can turn to Sustainable Napa County, a nonprofit, for help, suggests Napa Valley Unified School District maintenance and construction supervisor, Walt Blevins, who became the district’s first energy and operations manager as of July 1.
Sustainable Napa County, through a special fund created by the Gasser Foundation, provides nonprofit organizations with a grant to cover the gap between any cost of upgrades and the available PG&E rebates and incentives. This way, the cost to the nonprofit is zero, and the nonprofit begins seeing a positive return right away, according to Jeri Gill, chief executive of Sustainable Napa County.
For the past four years, Blevins and his team have been working closely with Sustainable Napa County on energy saving projects for the school district.
“The facilities management team at NVUSD has continued to excel in finding ways to eliminate overhead, making it possible to use each scarce dollar in their budget for education,” Gill said.
In their partnership, they have saved the school district a significant amount of money, and they are taking steps to save even more.
“Their group (SNC) has been very good to our district and I would encourage other nonprofits to contact them,” Blevins said. “We’ve accomplished so much. I don’t believe we’d be as far along without their efforts.”
Blevins said he has worked closely with Bill Bennett, a consultant for Sustainable Napa County and Napa County Energy Watch, on energy-conserving projects for several years. This has resulted in lighting retrofits to portable classrooms, variable frequency drives installed at district swimming pools, and PC “power down” software.
These projects, when all completed, generate an annual electricity savings of $280,000, nearly 1.8 million kilowatt-hours, according to Blevins.
“Bill has also been very instrumental in assisting the district in planning future projects, which include fan motor replacement in our walk-in refrigerators and freezers, and gym lighting from metal halide to LED lighting,” Blevins said. “We will be seeking rebates on the fan motor replacements of the walk-in as well as rebates on LED lighting for the gymnasiums.”
“We are also in the process of working with SNC and CLEARresult on retro commissioning of our energy management and HVAC systems,” Blevins said.
Installing solar to schools will provide 89 percent of the annual electricity used at those sites, reducing the school district’s annual bill from $539,501 to $58,129, Blevins said. In addition to saving money, the photovoltaic conversion is estimated to spare 542 metric tons of greenhouse gas emission.
Each school within the district will continue to do individual site evaluations with Sustainable Napa County to determine the best energy-saving projects for the individual sites.
The district will be promoting site awareness of energy issues and reduction strategies as they apply to each school. One of the strategies the team uses to save energy at individual schools is “night walks,” when they “listen” to hear what’s running and “look” to see if lights are on.
At both American Canyon and New Tech high schools, the students all have access to information regarding the generation of power from the on-site photovoltaic. Students at other sites installing solar will also have this information.
“We will be starting staff and student training on energy conservation,” Blevins said. “A few weeks ago we did an energy saving class for custodial staff.”
“Energy savings is very important to Dr. Sweeney and the board,” Blevins said.
“Between the photovoltaic, already installed at American Canyon High School, New Technology High School and the three projects that will be completed this summer at Napa High School, Vintage High School, and the Napa Education Center, along with the portable lighting retrofit, the PC power down and the variable frequency drives for the pools, the district has saved – or reduced our electric bill by over $950,000 in the last four years,” Blevins said.
“Last year at American Canyon High School, the total electric bill for the entire school was $74,” Blevins said.
This summer, while students experience freedom from school, the facilities team is working hard to ensure they come back to energy efficient buildings that are safe, comfortable and cost effective.

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