Noe Valley Voice April 2012

Alvarado First on List for Solar Roof Panels

Noe Valley School Energized by PUC’s Decision

By Corrie M. Anders

The “outdoor classroom” at Alvarado School on Douglass Street has vegetable and flower gardens and a 1,300-gallon tank for rainwater runoff.  Next on tap are solar panels. Principal Robert Broecker says they’re all part of an environmental education.    Photo by Beverly Tharp

Alvarado Elementary is poised to become the first public school in San Francisco to use the sun as a major source of power.

Solar panels could be installed as early as this summer, with work completed by early fall.

Charles Sheehan, a spokesman for the city’s Public Utilities Commission, which would oversee the installation, estimated the panels would generate up to 50 kilowatts of power, or about 40 percent of the school’s needs.

The switch on the citywide clean energy project was flipped March 13, when District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener submitted a resolution authorizing the PUC to install “photovoltaic power projects” on San Francisco Unified School District buildings.

The resolution is pending approval by the Board of Supervisors’ budget and finance committee, Wiener’s office said.

The PUC chose Alvarado, at Douglass and Alvarado streets, after analyzing roof conditions at a number of schools. Sheehan said the agency needed to determine whether adequate sunlight fell across a roof, whether trees or other buildings blocked the sun, and whether a roof could handle the weight of the panels.

The Noe Valley facility proved “an ideal location based on all these factors,” he said. “It has a good roof and good sun, and that’s what we were looking for.”

Wiener said he was particularly excited that Alvarado, “one of our finest public elementary schools,” was chosen first for the panels. He also is eager to see the program spread citywide.

“Numerous schools have flat roofs and significant sunlight exposure,” he said. “These roofs provide a great opportunity to increase solar power generation in San Francisco while greening our schools.”

Under Wiener’s legislation, the PUC will maintain the solar panels. The installation at Alvarado is expected to cost about $500,000, Sheehan said.

The school already has a small solar receiver that PG&E installed seven years ago on an upper playground. Students mainly use the low-power device as an tool to discover how much energy is made on certain types of days—such as when the skies are sunny or overcast.

The solar panel effort grew out of conversations two years ago that a group of Alvarado parents held with former District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty and Laura Spanjian, then an assistant general manager with the PUC. The parents included Todd David, who has two children at the school; Victor Lubet, whose daughter is in fourth grade; and Gabriela Tinoco, who has a daughter in second grade.

“It took us a while to get here,” said Tinoco, who along with Lubet co-chairs the school’s green committee. “We’re very excited that this is going to happen.”

Tinoco said the group’s purpose has been to help “kids learn about water conservation and energy efficiency—and solar panels is another component of our green team goal.”

Alvarado Principal Robert Broecker said the solar panels would provide a great opportunity for students.

“It’s exciting news,” said Broecker, who’s been principal for the past five years and was a teacher at the school for five years before that.

Alvarado is a  dual immersion Spanish-English school with 520 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It also is a high-ranking academic school with strong parental involvement.

For a number of years, the school has provided students with an extra measure of “greening and environmental education,” Broecker said, “and this is the latest in that.”

The students, for example, are actively engaged in water conservation and hands-on gardening in what they call their “secret garden” or “outdoor classroom.”

One green lesson is a water catchment system that collects rainwater from rooftops, feeds it through pipes, and stores it in a 1,300-gallon aboveground cistern.

“We fill up empty buckets and water the plants,” said Sebastian Gonzalez, 10, showing off a still-thriving winter garden of lettuce, carrots, and Swiss chard.

Alvarado’s young students also are adept in the art of manufacturing compost heaps—using lunchtime garbage and worms and soil—to enrich the flower and vegetable gardens.

“It’s really educating our students on sorting out lunch waste…and increasing the diversion rate from landfills,” Broecker said. “We’ve been doing this for the last two years, and we’ve been maintaining an 87 percent diversion rate.”

Last year, Broecker said, Alvarado was honored for having the highest diversion rate in the district.

The decision to launch a full-fledged solar project at Alvarado drew enthusiastic applause from the school’s environmentally savvy fifth-graders.

Levi Humphrey, 11, called it a fun science project.

“We can learn how much energy we can save,” he said, “and we don’t have to use our electricity as much if we get it from the sun.”