Sacramento high school warms up the community with new installation

By ELIZABETH VALENTE, Valley Community Newspapers writer

Thanks to foresight, campaigning, budget crunching, and maybe even spiritual intervention, St. Francis High School is showing the City of Sacramento ways to heat things up in terms of conserving energy. This past month, the East Sacramento Catholic high school completed the installation of 253 kilowatt, solar energy supply system on seven buildings.

STUDENT ADVOCATE for solar energy. Kate Ely, a senior at St. Francis High School, became involved with the school’s effort to become the first high school in the region to adopt solar power as a major campus energy source. / Photo courtesy, St. Francis High School

STUDENT ADVOCATE for solar energy. Kate Ely, a senior at St. Francis High School, became involved with the school’s effort to become the first high school in the region to adopt solar power as a major campus energy source. / Photo courtesy, St. Francis High School

The solar installation will generate 31 percent of the campus electricity usage generating an estimated $1 million in energy cost savings to the school over the next 20 years.

Stephanie Droste-Packham, state field associate for Environment California said putting solar panels up in schools is a win-win-win for Californians.

“They create green jobs in our communities, clean up air pollution, and save our schools money,” she said.

Last week Environment California Research & Policy Center released a new report, California’s Solar Cities 2012: Leaders in the Race Toward a Clean Energy Future, that featured the 72 year old all-female college preparatory high school as a leader in renewable energy conservation.

As Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson explained at State of the City address at the Convention Center on Jan. 30, St. Francis High School’s commitment to make clean energy a priority is an “example of how an investment in solar makes great business sense for a property owner, creates green jobs, and improves our environment.”

“I am proud of today’s recognition by Environment California,” Mayor Johnson said. “Sacramento and Greenwise Joint Venture, have made a concerted effort to leverage our competitive advantages and make clean energy a priority. We see the results in the statewide data and in projects throughout our region. We are also teaching our students that we care about their future.”

Kate Ely, a senior at St. Francis High School, became involved in this project at the end of her junior year. She served on the school’s planning and finance committee, wrote a letter to the Diocesan Finance Council (that had to approve the project, since St. Francis is a  Sacramento Diocesan School), and even joined Mayor Johnson at media events on the plans for the installation of solar panels at the Catholic school.

“As I grew to understand the charts and graphs, installation techniques, and advantages of the prospective bidders, a specific role developed for me to represent the students, to be their voice,” Ely said. “While St. Francis solar panels on campus will cut energy costs and reduce carbon emissions, other key benefits from the students’ perspective is to model the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church and demonstrate the importance of living in cooperation with nature.”

Droste-Packham said that putting solar panels up on schools educates the students on how to power life sustainably.

“When a teenager in high school knows the lights in the library, the auditorium, the hallways, or even the power point presentation in math class is powered not by fossil fuels, but by the sun, they become stewards of clean energy,” Droste-Packham said. “They know what direction we should be heading as a state, and that’s away from fossil fuels, away from air pollution and away from global warming pollutants.”

“Our students are excited and happy to have solar panels here at the high school,” said Ingrid Niles, St. Francis High School communications director. “I think overall, our kids think having something like this is pretty cool and we hope we inspire a few of them to look at this stuff after high school.”

SOLAR FARM TO SAVE ENERGY…AND MONEY. This photo shows the building of the solar “farm” that sits atop seven buildings at St. Francis High School in Sacramento. Photovoltaic panels were then installed on the frames. The completed system is expected to generate over one-third of the campus’ energy, and is expected to save the school $1 million over the next two decades. / Photo courtesy, St. Francis High School

SOLAR FARM TO SAVE ENERGY…AND MONEY. This photo shows the building of the solar “farm” that sits atop seven buildings at St. Francis High School in Sacramento. Photovoltaic panels were then installed on the frames. The completed system is expected to generate over one-third of the campus’ energy, and is expected to save the school $1 million over the next two decades. / Photo courtesy, St. Francis High School

St. Francis High School’s photovoltaic (PV) solar installation is funded through a U.S. Treasury Grant, SMUD rebates and reductions in electric utility bills. It will result in a significant reduction in carbon emissions compared to traditional forms of generating electricity. It’s also designed to produce 30.6 percent of the school’s current electricity requirements.

“It will lock in the cost of electricity for 30 percent of the school’s needs, thus serving as an effective hedge against future inflation in the cost of electricity,” explained Niles. “California utility rates have increased an average of 6.7 percent over the last 30 years.”

St. Francis High School’s Director of Finance and Business Operations Sharon Tobar worked closely with the school’s Finance Council to bring the solar project to fruition. Tim Lien, a Sacramento businessman and parent of a St. Francis graduate, became involved in the project early on and spent hundreds of hours on the proposal. Paul Lau, SMUD assistant general manager and also a St. Francis parent, was one of many SMUD representatives instrumental in the planning stages.

“SMUD has been supporting the project from the top of the organization all the way down with customer support and PV expertise,” said Tobar.

“It is my hope that the St. Francis High School Solar Project will encourage each member of our community to embrace their role as Christian Stewards,” Ely said.


According to Environment California, the nation’s 31st state is number one in the country in terms of solar power, leading the way through the next great energy transition.

“California is steadily moving away from powering our lives on dead dinosaurs to powering our lives with sunshine. Solar panels are going up across the state, on homes, warehouses, military bases and schools,” said Stephanie Droste-Packham.

A Environment California Research & Policy Center report shows that Sacramento ranks seventh in the state in terms of the total amount of solar electricity generated, measured in capacity, with 16 megawatts. Sacramento ranks 10th in the state in terms of the number of solar installations on residential, commercial and government buildings, with just over 1,000 projects installed.

Sacramento has experienced the greatest rate of solar growth of all major cities, tripling the total amount of solar power installed in the past two years alone.

“Solar power is booming in Sacramento,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, director of clean energy programs at Environment California Research & Policy Center. “Despite the slow economy, Sacramento has found a way to grow one of the most promising clean energy solutions, bringing clean air and jobs to the city.”

The top 12 solar cities are:

  1. San Diego
  2. Los Angeles
  3. San Jose
  4. Fresno
  5. San Francisco
  6. Bakersfield
  7. Sacramento
  8. Santa Rosa
  9. Oakland
  10. Chico
  11. Clovis
  12. Roseville
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