The Coast News Group

Escondido high schools shifting to solar power

ESCONDIDO — For the Escondido Union High School District, it started as a way to save money on its monthly bills. Yet, in so doing, the district has embarked on a broader plan to transition toward using more solar power as part of its energy portfolio.

The current iteration of that effort is being led Mark Cavassa, who serves as the energy specialist for the district. It’s a job he has held since the 2013-2014 school year. Cavassa, formerly a teacher at San Pasqual High School, said his job entails mentoring district employees in smart day-to-day energy consumption practices, as well as monitoring day-to-day grid-level consumption practices for district schools.

“I implemented a district-wide energy conservation program that primarily targeted user behavior and the focus was on saving energy while classrooms/buildings are not in use,” Cavassa explained to The Coast News. “That turned out nicely, as two years down the road we had reduced our energy use by about one million kilowatts per year. As a result, and with the cost of solar coming down, it began to make sense for us to go solar.”

The district has a power purchasing agreement for solar energy with the company Sunpower for 3.5 megawatts per year, Cavassa further detailed, which consists of about 60 percent of the district’s overall usage.

“Despite the 35 to 40 percent increases in electricity rates, we have managed keep our utility costs almost the same,” Cavassa said.

In a walkthrough of the San Pasqual High School campus, Cavassa showed The Coast News what the school is doing to achieve greater energy efficiency. This includes solar power panels implanted in 2016 as massive shade awnings in the school’s major student parking lot, LED-powered lights making up 90 percent of the exterior portion of school’s campus and in the gymnasium; as well as a battery-powered electricity generator which was manufactured by the company Tesla.

Tesla — a company more famous for producing electric vehicles — owns the electricity generator. But the generator itself is administered by the company Stem, which specializes in creating artificial intelligence patterns for electricity usage. Calling its program Athena — the namesake of the ancient Greek goddess — Stem learns from the school’s electricity usage patterns and has created a battery-charging and electricity-generating cycle based on these patterns, Cavassa said.

On not so hot days, San Pasqual High School’s energy can come in large part from the solar panels, with sun being an abundant commodity in Escondido and San Diego County at-large. That allows the Tesla electricity system to sit idle and charge up through its battery during those time periods.

The district’s conservation efforts have been helped along by California Proposition 39 — the Clean Energy Jobs Act — which passed and became state law in 2012.

“Under the initiative, funding is available annually for appropriation by the Legislature for eligible energy projects such as energy efficiency upgrades and clean energy generation at schools,” explains the California Energy Commission of the law. “The Proposition 39 K-12 Program provides grant funds for energy projects — energy efficiency upgrades and clean energy generation –— at schools within a local educational agency.”

According to the California Energy Commission’s 2016-2017 Progress Report on Proposition 39 spending reviewed by The Coast News, the district has spent more than $1.5 million to-date in grant funding from the program on energy conservation and clean energy line items.

Solar power is also in place at other Escondido schools, including Orange Glen High School, Escondido High School and Del Lago Academy, according to Cavassa. Though Cavassa currently leads the district’s energy conservation and clean energy push, he credits the district’s former assistant superintendent for business services Michael Simonson for taking the initial lead and spearheading the efforts. Simonson is currently assistant superintendent at San Diego County Office of Education.

In addition to Escondido Union High School District, Cavassa said that there are people doing work similar to his within the Escondido Union School District, in the Carlsbad Union School District, the San Diego Unified School District and well beyond throughout the state of California. Indeed, said Cavassa, it is becoming a national norm in schools throughout the country to aim for more energy conservation and getting renewable energy on school district energy grids.

Though Cavassa takes satisfaction with the work being done at the district on the issue, he believes room for improvement still exists.

“Energy conservation is a work in progress and there’s always more to do,” said Cavassa. “It takes energy to save energy.”