Guest Blog: The Solar Panels of Orange County

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By Shelly Yarbrough

Mike Parham, the IUSD board member responsible for prompting the school district to retrofit with solar.
Mike Parham, the IUSD board member responsible for prompting the school district to retrofit with solar.

Anyone who ever watched Housewives of Orange County knows that people in that upscale community have a lot of money to spend on just about anything they want.

So plunking down a few millions bucks for solar panels should be no problem for the school district in the heart of Orange County, the Irvine Unified School District, right?


Despite the high living you might see on television dramas and reality shows, the IUSD is pretty much like every other school district in California. The money is dried up.

So when IUSD board member Mike Parham decided his district needed to go solar, he also knew it would have to be at little or no cost to the district.

“We knew the price of buying and installing solar was coming down, and the incentives were at an all-time high, so there was no reason to wait,” Parham said.

Low cost was good. No cost was better, so that is what Parham and his district did.

Earlier this week, the IUSD voted unanimously to go solar on each of its 21 schools, selecting SPG Solar and Sun Edison to build and finance the project. All at no cost to the district.

This is not a charity thing. Or a giveaway. It is a sound business deal made possible by tax incentives on the one hand, and a sharply decreasing cost of buying and installing solar panels on the other.

Here’s how it works: Schools, of course, do not pay taxes so tax breaks are of little interest to them. Enter SPG Solar and SunEdison.

What they do is rent the roofs from the IUSD, build the system, create the power, then sell it to the schools — just like a utility might. With one difference: it is cheaper. Way cheaper. From seven to 20 percent cheaper.

And over the 20-year life of the deal that comes to more than $17 million, says Tom Rooney, president of SPG Solar.

For all you gear heads out there, “this project will generate over 6.6 million kilowatt hours of solar energy per year,” said Dylan Dupre of SPG Solar. “Over the life of the project, this will remove 127 million pounds of CO2, the equivalent of removing 12,000 cars from the road for one year.”

But as good as the finances are, what really has school board members such as Parham excited is what is happening in the classrooms. IUSD is developing a curriculum that takes full advantage of all the information its solar system is creating.

That includes lessons in science and math of course, but also business, finance and even art.

“Our responsibility is to squeeze the most out of every dollar, and to provide the best education possible with those limited resources,” said Parham, who in addition to being nationally recognized in the field of renewable energy for schools is also an investment banker. “Students, who will one day run this country, should learn about the viability of solar (and wind) energy, in order to be well-prepared for the job market of the future.”

Thanks to Parham, the people of Orange County are still getting whatever they want. Only this time they are making money from it. Go figure.


Shelly Yarbrough is a member of the Val Verde School Board in Riverside County, California. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the California School Board Association. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.