By Braden Reddall
SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - A group of Silicon Valley schools have built the largest solar and power-saving system of any U.S. school district through a project undertaken with the energy efficiency arm of Chevron Corp.
The 7.1 megawatt project at San Jose's East Side Union High School District should save $43 million over its life, and $3 million next year alone, or enough to fund at least 25 jobs, according to Lan Nguyen, president of the district's board.
Projects such as this one, which include the deployment of solar panels, allow cash-strapped schools to capture some of the funds set aside for California's clean energy targets.
"At a time when our district is being forced to absorb painful budget cuts due to the continued economic downturn, this program is a huge reason to celebrate," Nguyen said.
The project led by Chevron Energy Solutions (CES) used solar panels made by SolarWorld and Sharp, which will also serve as canopies for cars in parking lots, as well as energy-efficiency improvements, such as lighting.
Tom Torlakson, California's state superintendent of public education, said at the East Side project's unveiling on Friday that he hoped it would push more of the state's 1,000 school districts to adopt similar schemes.
Efficiency played a crucial part in making them pay, he added. Recognizing that smaller districts might not be able to tackle them alone, his office aims to set up partnerships among public-sector bodies to work through red tape together.
California funding for solar energy also plays a part, worth more than $14 million on the East Side project alone.
East Side does have advantages. The district covers 180 square miles (466 sq km) in sprawling, sun-drenched Silicon Valley, and has nearly 24,000 students. Such projects have now added 20 MW across Silicon Valley schools, a spokesman said.
Yet California is not alone. Tioga Energy announced on Thursday the development of 3.4 MW of solar energy systems at a variety of government agencies in Union County, New Jersey.
Also, Tioga and Chevron together completed in April a solar parking canopy project in Hawaii for Oceanic Time Warner Cable.
But CES remains largely focused on public-sector work because while it may not be the cheapest provider, an executive said it does offer stability to such organizations, which plan for the long term. "We've been around 130 years," said Teresa Mayer, chief financial officer of CES.
Despite California's financial troubles, the state remains committed to funding cleaner energy. In March, state lawmakers passed a bill that would require a third of electricity to come from sources such as solar and wind by 2020.
(Reporting by Braden Reddall;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)