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California Schools Can't Keep Pace with Utility Bills. Lawmakers Must Fix New Solar Rules.
gvw_calmatters
By CalMatters
Published 1 week ago on
May 8, 2024

California school districts tackle rising utility costs impacting education budgets. Senate Bill 1374 extends a lifeline by making solar panel investments pencil out again. (Shutterstock)

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Serving as a school board president requires a deep dedication to ensuring districts have the resources needed to provide every student with a high-quality education. Sadly, that core mission has been challenged by runaway utility costs draining resources from already cash-strapped budgets.

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Sam Davis

Opinion

CalMatters

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Hugh Awtrey

Opinion

CalMatters

School districts such as Oakland and Clovis Unified, for example, are separated by more than a hundred miles, yet the upward trajectory of utility costs is maddeningly similar. For Oakland, these energy expenses spiked $1.3 million just this year. Clovis has endured $2.2 million in electricity hikes since 2019 – increases that would have ballooned to more than $5 million without the district’s existing solar panels.

Energy expenses are typically the second-largest line item for schools after staff salaries. They’re paid from the same limited pot reserved for teacher salaries, classroom supplies and facility operations. More money funneled toward skyrocketing utility bills means less for the educators, materials and resources that directly impact student learning.

Amidst this relentless march toward higher energy costs, solar power has been a lifeline for schools, generating major savings that can be reinvested into classrooms. But under new regulations, that lifeline has been severed for districts pursuing new installations.

These rules undermine the financial viability of climate-friendly investments.

How to Fix California’s Short-Sighted Solar Policy

This shortsighted policy creates a lose-lose-lose scenario: it constrains school budgets, stifles demand for solar energy and pads utility company profits. Fortunately, Senate Bill 1374, authored by Sen. Josh Becker of Menlo Park, provides a commonsense solution to this tangled mess.

The legislation would essentially close a loophole that has unfairly undermined the economics of multi-meter properties like schools, making it unviable to install solar panels.

Historically, districts could apply all self-generated solar power to offset total utility usage across multiple meters. Now they can only apply that solar energy toward offsetting usage on a single meter – severely diminishing potential savings given that many campuses have multiple meters.

Even more egregiously, any excess solar energy produced must be sold back to utilities at a discounted rate, only to be repurchased at full retail price to power other meters. It’s akin to being penalized for growing vegetables at home but having to sell them for pennies, then purchase that same produce at a market price.

The economics simply don’t pencil out.

SB 1374 would restore rationality by ensuring schools receive full retail credit on utility bills for all solar energy produced, regardless of meter numbers. Among the more 500 California schools that one energy consulting company helped go solar, large districts averaged $500,000 in annual savings, while smaller sites pocketed $200,000 yearly.

As one-time COVID relief funds expire and basic operating costs continue rising, this legislative fix provides a rare opportunity for schools to actually cut expenses while advancing California’s climate leadership.

For the sake of our students, our educators and our tax dollars, lawmakers should support SB 1374.

About the Authors

Sam Davis is president of the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education. Hugh Awtrey is president of the Clovis Unified School District Board of Education. They wrote this for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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