School districts throughout Contra Costa County have turned to solar energy to reduce utility costs and generate revenues through credits or rebates.

But in a recently released report, the Contra Costa County grand jury found a wide disparity in how districts approached projects, estimated costs and savings, planned for future expenses, monitored production and reported the costs and savings to the public.

The panel scrutinized projects in the Contra Costa Community College District and Martinez, Mt. Diablo, Pittsburg and San Ramon Valley unified districts.

It found that the college district, Mt. Diablo and Pittsburg districts have not been reporting their energy savings in comparison to their original projections, and the data that was tracked was not easily accessible to the public on district websites. In addition, the districts did not share data about their projects with each other, the grand jury found.

The panel recommended that districts set aside a portion of their savings for future costs including maintenance; that insurance costs be included in calculating net savings; that savings be compared to original estimates available on district websites; and that districts mitigate risks associated with the long-term projects.

"The five districts did not share substantive information, analyses and experiences with each other concerning the selection and installation of a solar energy program, and the Contra Costa County Office of Education did not facilitate this process," the grand jury reported. "All districts have learned some lessons in the implementation of the five solar energy projects that could be beneficial to other school districts ..."

The San Ramon Valley district stood out as the only district that included detailed tracking of its energy savings on its website calculated the same way as its original projections. It was also the only district to set aside all net savings in a reserve account for future costs.

"So far, we are at over $2 million in savings since we started in November 2011," district spokesman Terry Koehne said. "While I think there were typical detractors, we really did our homework and felt that it was certainly in the best interest of the district."

The report identified 15 "beneficial actions" for districts to consider before installing new solar projects. These include:

  • Establish an advisory committee.

  • Consider annual changes in electricity rates in projections.

  • Reserve net savings to cover expenses rather than diverting the savings into the general fund.

  • Create best-case and worst-case projections.

  • Compare actual savings to projected savings.

    more information
  • The complete Contra Costa grand jury report is available by calling 925-957-5638 or visiting www.cc-courts.org/grandjury. Click on "Grand Jury Index," then select "2012-2013" and "1309: Solar Energy Projects in School Districts."