ANTIOCH -- The school district is going solar -- and it hopes to energize student learning in the process.

Antioch Unified trustees agreed last week to a $28.7 million contract with San Jose-based SunPower for the design and installation of solar panels at 20 school sites.

The panels will generate 5.2 megawatts of power and provide shade for kids on the playgrounds of one of the Bay Area's warmest cities. But, what makes Antioch Unified's solar project unusual is that it includes a heavy emphasis on education.

"By tying this all together, there's going to be multiple benefits," said Tim Forrester, associate superintendent of business services.

SunPower plans to create lessons for Antioch's career-theme pathways with the nonprofit organization Project Lead the Way. Plans call for working with engineering and biomedical science academies on three high school campuses, a middle school Gateway to Technology program and at lower levels to show students system design, fabrication, installation, monitoring and deciphering energy generation data.

"The students literally have this learning lab right in front of them they can utilize, be hands-on, and see what they are learning about," said Thor Misko, Project Lead the Way's vice president of development. "It makes lessons relevant and encourages innovation."

On the money end, the startup cost is being covered by a $30 million Qualified Zone Academy Bond, money doled out by the California Department of Education for renewable energy projects, provided the recipient include an educational component.

It required a 10 percent match, which was picked up by Project Lead The Way.

Antioch will repay the bond with cost savings from the panels, which is projected to be done in about 17 years, Forrester said. The district projects it will save a net benefit of $24.5 million over the next 25 years and $39 million in 30 years.

"That has been one of my concerns every time one of these solar projects was brought before us: Does it pencil out?" trustee Claire Smith said Thursday, adding she initially was not in favor of the plan until hearing a detailed presentation. "I feel happy and comfortable with it."

"I think the timing of it was almost perfect," said Bob Redlinger, a senior manager with SunPower.

The financial part of the plan is advantageous to all because bonds have a 1.16 percent interest rate, and the parties were able to snag rebates from the California Solar Initiative.

"We literally got the last bit of incentive before being placed on a waiting list," Redlinger said. "Everything just fell into place in a good way."

Design is expected to be finished later this year, with panel installation work being done in three stages. Work is scheduled to be completed in all but one of the sites by late 2014. Antioch High's timing is "a bit of a wild card" because of its new construction, Redlinger said.

In addition to working with the Linked Learning classes, Antioch Unified will also work with SunPower and programs One Million Lights and the Exploratorium to develop grade-appropriate educational modules to teach all elementary students lessons in solar science and renewable energy and enhance studies of math and science. Those lessons would start in the 2014-15 school year.

"We've been progressively stepping up trying to incorporate (an education component) into our projects," Redlinger said.

Antioch anticipates having about $3 million left over from the state bond, which would go toward making lighting and air conditioning units more energy-efficient, Forrester said.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.