Unique lessons learned from a California school district solar portfolio

California school district solar canopy San Bernardino DSD Renewables

We’re all familiar with the conventional commercial solar installations for office buildings, business campuses, retailers, etc. to save on energy costs and meet corporate sustainability goals. Not only is solar a great solution for these customers, but it can be an excellent option for municipalities and school systems.

According to Generation180, the amount of solar installed at K-12 schools has tripled and the number of schools with solar installations has doubled since 2015, with one in ten public schools having gone solar on average. And that number is only growing, with rapidly increasing attention towards deploying renewable generation to reach sustainability goals.

However, schools often tend to have less upfront capital to get started on projects like these, and may have limited experience identifying where to begin on their clean energy journey. Developers understand that each solar installation is unique, and it is important to realize that schools can come with their very own stringent set of challenges.

A variety of factors related to local regulations, design hurdles, and additional outside requirements can pose an obstacle to any project. This was the case with a recent 16 project, 5.67 MW portfolio DSD worked on with the San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD), which came with its own circumstances that developers and EPCs may not commonly see, but could arise when deploying a solar installation with a school system.

Environmental hurdles

In our work with SBCUSD, the first factor we had to account for was environmental considerations. Being in California, where earthquakes are common, there were distinctive seismic conditions that had to be designed for. Seismic design loads varied from site to site based on the type of soil and building code design parameters. These parameters are developed based on years of extensive research and definition of design level events with calculated probability of recurrence intervals.

The San Bernardino area is generally close to known faults which translates to strict design parameters and, in combination with varying soil types, a high level of seismic loading. This required us to design the projects using structural steel and foundations that were able to resist the loads (not bend or break), meet deflection limitations to prevent collapse, and maintain safety during a specified seismic event.

We also had to account for wind loading, which, similar to seismic design criteria, can vary per any given site based on elevation, exposure, and general geometry of the structures. All of these factors and variables had to be evaluated at each site and run through building code equations to determine appropriate design parameters and loading. The prescribed loads were then applied to appropriately size the structures, foundations, and components, in order to avoid failure during events of heavy wind loading.

Design and regulatory requirements

When working with localities, especially school districts, it’s not unlikely that developers will have to face a unique set of rules and regulations when developing projects.

While deploying our portfolio for SBCUSD, we had to navigate new building regulations from California’s Division of State Architects (DSA) — the controlling authority in California for K-12 schools, colleges, and other state-owned/leased facilities — which were more strict than previous requirements and more stringent than the “base level” building codes. Though we had done plenty of projects in the state prior to new DSA guidelines, this threw a curveball into our design process, requiring us to quickly get up to speed on the new guidelines to ensure that our designs met the updated regulations.

Even after the project designs were approved and went through DSA pre-check and permitting for California K-12 schools, we encountered additional roadblocks, as we later discovered that the reality didn’t match with what was on paper. Given the soil characteristics and wind loading, the sites were determined to fall into a “special hazard zone” as defined by building codes  and DSA. This led all 16 projects to have to go through additional diligence efforts and an even longer review process, forcing the team to quickly adapt to the situation and redesign the projects to satisfy all requirements.

At one site, we ended up installing a curb under a solar canopy that was located near handicap parking spots, which was required by the DSA to prevent accidents while also meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Although not something a solar developer would not typically manage, our team stayed innovative and flexible, working closely with SBCUSD to push the project forward, despite the unforeseen setbacks that mounted.

Material and supply chain constraints

The SBCUSD portfolio was awarded in 2020, and as much of the industry experienced, building during the pandemic was oftentimes difficult to navigate. Elements that were beyond our control, such as supply chain constraints, equipment delays, and rising material costs, had a huge impact on the viability of projects being developed, and are still impacting our industry today. We were challenged every step along the way to be creative, comply with design and safety requirements, and successfully deliver this portfolio while navigating the unprecedented and difficult and volatile market conditions.

Our portfolio was particularly impacted by the rising steel costs, which increased threefold from the time we were awarded the project to the start of construction. This proved to be a difficult hurdle, changing the entire structure of our PPA contract that was proposed at the start of working with SBCUSD. We approached this challenge strategically and transparently to provide an end product that would serve the needs of SBCUSD in the most economical way possible.

Look beyond the obstacle

It’s important that developers work closely with their partners and customers throughout the entire development process. Some challenges are to be expected, but many times unforeseen roadblocks pop up and a collaborative relationship is critical to drive a project forward. The challenges we faced during the SBCUSD deployment exceeded the normal challenges to development, engineering, and implementation. As our team illustrated, developers need to be quick to think on their feet, adapt designs and processes, and be ready for the unexpected.

The main focus should always remain on the end goal — delivering a successful project that provides value to the customer, and supports reaching sustainability targets and accelerating solar adoption. In this case, it was the largest project for a school district we had ever tackled, and with all 16 sites currently operational, we’re meeting 100% of each facility’s energy needs with renewables. All in all, the projects will contribute to saving the district an estimated $60 million in electricity costs over the next 30 years that will be reinvested into classrooms and facilities — a remarkable project that wouldn’t have crossed the finish line without successfully navigating unique obstacles together and never losing sight of the end value.

Mike Slack is VP of canopy design and engineering at DSD Renewables

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