Solar FAQs

Many Arizona school districts are grappling with declining budgets and rising electricity rates. At the same time, the cost of solar power has come down significantly and new financing opportunities allow schools to "Go Solar" without the upfront cost.
Provided are answers to some typical questions that our community of students, parents, teachers and school stakeholders have about the upcoming TUSD solar projects.

Currently 43 district sites are slated for solar systems, with a vast majority of the sites being elementary and K-8 schools. Through ongoing technical evaluations, the number of sites and sizes of systems may change but not significantly. All of the systems will utilize solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. The solar panels will be mostly installed on tall shade structures covering play areas and parking lots and roof tops for a small number of sites. When the solar panels are not producing power, for example at night, the school's electricity will be supplied by TEP as usual.
TUSD is taking advantage of what is called a Solar Services Agreement (SSA) to help district schools use solar and lock in years of future energy savings. Instead of owning the solar systems, TUSD will simply pay for the clean solar power the systems produce every month. The solar rate is set in advance and is lower than the TEP rate the district would pay otherwise. This means the district will start saving money right away. The district has negotiated this SSA purchase rate to remain constant for the 20-year term of the SSA. The SSA provides a secure hedge against energy inflation and millions of dollars in much needed savings.
SSAs are an extremely well vetted method for schools to obtain solar systems used by many Arizona school districts (for example Tanque Verde and Marana School Districts) that have implemented solar energy via an SSA. An SSA is simply an agreement whereby a system owner pays to construct a solar system and maintain and service it over time, in exchange for a long term agreement to sell the energy produced by the system. Typically school districts enter into SSA contracts to reduce energy costs (vs. their electric utilities) and since the inception of school SSAs in Arizona around 2009, best practices have been developed for schools to follow when exploring the feasibility of a solar system contract. TUSD has been diligent to apply these best practices and has proceeded cautiously and prudently in developing the projects, along with the parties which the district has awarded the project to, so as to maximize the expected cost savings.
All district solar systems will be sized, designed, installed and interconnected in compliance with TEP rules and regulations. However, unlike with other Tucson-area school districts that have gone solar, no TEP incentives are available to subsidize the projects. The reason for this is that TEP incentives in support of privately developed school solar projects ended in 2012 per plans approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission. As a result, the district will retain the rights to all "Renewable Energy Credits" (RECs) associated with the systems. This means as a result of this project's solar energy generation, the district may claim a true offset of its carbon footprint.
NPE and its team have extensive experience in school solar installations and are well versed in the challenges of managing construction projects at educational facilities. NPE has developed a comprehensive construction plan and will be able to meet and exceed the rigorous safety requirements (ex. trade background checks, fencing, hazard awareness, daily coordination with school authorities) required to complete the installations with minimal disruption to the schools while in session.
As for the systems themselves, all components used in the TUSD systems are UL listed and installed in a safe code-compliant manner in accordance with City of Tucson and TEP requirements. Because the solar panels will be located on tall shade structures, they will be very difficult to tamper with. Additionally, the major electrical connection to each site's electrical gear will be further protected with fences and/or padlocks.
In addition to providing shaded play areas for students and covered parking, all installed solar systems will feature online data monitoring accessible from any Internet-enabled device. This data monitoring will allow students and teachers to view the performance of the systems instantly as well as scrutinize it for more detailed analysis. The information supplied by the data monitoring will also be integrated into the school curriculum to help students learn about how solar electricity works and the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency. This applies to subject areas such as science, social studies, math, language arts and technology.
The project has been organized into seven groups, with each group made up of six to eight sites. While the project is already underway, installation of the first group of systems will begin in the first quarter of 2014. The follow-on group of sites will be initiated every three months or so with completion of all the installations expected by the end of the first quarter of 2015.
There are three main parties supporting the district solar projects and each has a different role and responsibility, as follows:
  1. Natural Power and Energy (NPE): NPE is a leading solar "developer" in Arizona, with considerable experience in Tucson including projects for National Bank of Arizona and the new innovative system at Tucson International Airport. TUSD competitively awarded the solar projects to NPE to facilitate the project development and management, arrange SSA financing, oversee design/engineering, and the procurement of system components. NPE is currently evaluating top-tier Arizona based and licensed general contractors to install the systems and ensure all sites are managed in the safest and least disruptive way during installation.
  2. Constellation (Currently negotiating with TUSD): Constellation will function as the "owner" of the TUSD solar systems and is responsible for system performance, operations and maintenance. Constellation will gain the benefit of federal tax credits associated with the systems and the revenue stream paid by TUSD for the electricity the systems generate during the term of the SSA. Constellation is a subsidiary of Exelon (a Fortune 500 top ranked utility) a national energy leader with operations in 47 states with over 26,000 employees and revenues of $23.5 billion in 2012. Constellation has deployed solar across 9 Arizona School Districts and 61 sites, and counts among its marquee solar customers electric utilities (such as Southern California Edison), US States (State of Maryland), companies (General Motors) and US Federal Agencies.
  3. Tucson Unified School District: TUSD is considered the "host" of the solar systems and in this capacity is not responsible for the operations and maintenance of the systems but has contractually agreed to purchase all the power generated by the systems over the 20-year term of the SSA. If you didn't already know, TUSD has been serving Tucson's youth, families and community since 1867. TUSD is the second largest school district in the State of Arizona and the decision to go solar will have a profoundly positive effect on advancing the district's cost savings and sustainability objectives.
The solar shade structures need to be installed in areas at each site that make the most economical sense and comply with key design considerations such as distance to the site's electrical gear, solar panel orientation, shading and easements. Additionally, considerations such as preserving large play areas (such as baseball fields) and avoiding the need to remove trees and landscaping are important factors that play into the system locations. Final placement of the solar shade structures is subject to change.
See the Planned Sites page for information about the planned locations for the installation of solar panels at each site.
Blaine Young
Chief Operations Officer
Posted/Revised Date
Information about facilities, project/planning, and energy conservation in Tucson Unified School District.
article, 2022-2023, schools, tucson, facilities, procject/planning, energy conservation, operation services
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