CONCORD -- The Mt. Diablo school district is preparing to install the first phase of its taxpayer-funded solar panels at 17 sites, expecting to break ground in June and finish in September.
The second and third phases will take place during the school year, with all 51 sites completed by April 2012, according to the district's schedule.
Some district officials are worrying about how the public will react when they see dozens of trees ripped out of campuses and replaced with a sea of solar panels atop carports or similar raised "shade structures."
They're hoping the community will take pride in the positive aspects of the project -- which is expected to offset more than $3 million in electricity bills a year -- instead of focusing on how the structures could negatively affect campuses. Voters in June approved Measure C, a $348 million bond measure, which is paying for the solar projects among other campus improvements.
"The (school) sites, in their minds, are making some real compromises," said project manager Pete Pedersen, during a Measure C Oversight Committee meeting Thursday. "These aren't the prettiest things in the world. I don't think people realize how big they are."
Meanwhile, the Contra Costa County Office of Education is putting up solar panels over a parking lot next to the Pleasant Hill public library. Mt. Diablo district trustee Cheryl Hansen, an administrator in the county office, asked Pedersen if the district's structures would be as large as the county's.
"I hope not," she said. "You could park Mac trucks under ours."
The county's Pleasant Hill structures are about 16 feet tall and span about 38,000 square feet, said John Hild, director of general services. He expects the 454-kilowatt system to be finished in April and to offset the administration building's $130,000 annual electricity bill.
The county also installed a 130-kilowatt ground-mounted system at its Mauzy School in Alamo, Hild said. Although both projects required tree removal, the county plans to replace trees and add new landscaping near the library, he said. Mt. Diablo's structures will be 9 to 12 feet tall, and provide more than 11.2 megawatts of electricity, Pedersen said. The size of the panel arrays will vary, based on available space.
To completely offset the district's electricity bill, plus provide additional electricity to power air conditioning that will be installed at 28 more schools, trustees on Tuesday approved a change order adding $1.8 million to the district's $65.6 million contract with solar panel installer SunPower, bringing its total to $67.4 million.
Pedersen said he expected to bring two more change orders to trustees for the next two phases, which will increase the contract cost, but also increase the long-term savings.
Because most schools don't have large enough parking lots to accommodate the solar panels, the district also plans to cover portions of playgrounds or other areas of campuses, Pedersen said. He is meeting with school administrators and has set up a website that includes the locations of solar panels for the first phase.
"We're trying to communicate as best we can: 'This is what it's going to look like and these are the adverse impacts,' " he said. "It's probably one of the most difficult things I've ever managed."