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Critics rain on PPS plan to omit solar roofs

Time, money keep an eco-friendly task off summer-project list


by: PHOTO COURTESY PPS - Roof damage at Wilson High school could be repaired through PPS bond work. Some are concerned that the district is not installing solar panels on schools' roofs.Portland Public Schools is preparing to spend the first chunk of its voter-approved $482 million construction bond money — but even before the work has begun, it’s getting some backlash.

This summer, PPS will spend $13.3 million in bond funds to replace the roofs and make other long-awaited fixes at five schools: Wilson High; Alameda, Bridlemile and Lewis elementaries; and Laurelhurst K-8.

What has some watchdogs on the attack is that the five roof replacements are set to be conventional “plywood roof sheathing,” without any eco-friendly solar roof technology, as some advocates had hoped and pushed for.

PPS Capital Operations Director Jim Owens says it’s a matter of two things: time and money.

“This summer is our first bite of the apple,” Owens says. “There is a lot of nuance to doing solar work. We have to be deliberate with the planning, need to figure how to apply for grants. It’s a fairly complicated process.”

One major hurdle is that the Oregon Business Energy Tax Credits incentive — which PPS used in 2009 to install nine solar roofs — has since evaporated.

In its place is Feed In Tariff, a program of the nonprofit Solar Oregon, which the Beaverton and Gladstone districts used in 2011 to install solar roofs on a total of four schools.

PPS will explore the Feed In Tariff and other potential incentives to help put solar roofs on some of its proposed slate of 12 summer projects next year, Owens says.

This summer, however, he says it’s “completely unreasonable” to alter the schedule of the five roof replacements, which will run from mid-June to late August.

Owens says scope, schedule and budget of the projects must be balanced in order to complete improvements at all 63 PPS schools during the eight-year duration of the bond.

The roof projects at the five schools this summer will greatly improve their seismic safety; some of the buildings also will get science lab upgrades and accessibility improvements.

In future years, the district could come back to the five schools and add solar panels, like Beaverton has done, Owens says.

Still, critics think this approach is a huge missed opportunity for PPS.

“The district has an agreement with the citizens of Portland that they will rebuild and repair our facilities with a sustainable and asset-based approach,” says Mike Rosen, a Cleveland High parent leader who worked on both bond campaigns, in 2011 and 2012. “They’ve broken their contract with the community.”

During the most recent bond process, Rosen points out there was no shortage of planning. A group of nearly 40 community leaders and experts spent six months analyzing the long-range facilities needs of the district, which led to a comprehensive plan to rebuild the district’s schools.

The bond was shaped from that plan, and sustainability was one of the principles of design.

“PPS is Portland’s second-largest property owner and one of the city’s largest employers,” the long-range facilities plan states. “Heeding this, (the School Board) attends to the environmental, social and economic future of Portland as it sets policies and practice. These pillars of sustainability shall be integrated into all facilities decisions.”

Installing five roofs this summer without solar energy savings “doesn’t come anywhere close to that commitment,” Rosen says.

In 2009, PPS began a roof replacement project that at first was going to be a typical one. Then community members spoke up and asked why they weren’t pursuing solar roofs.

PPS then hired Gerding Edlen Sustainable Solutions, which secured a third-party investor to manage the finance and installation of 500,000 square feet of solar panels across nine schools.

District leaders continue to tout the ongoing energy savings from that project today. The solar array generates enough power to offset 18 percent of the electrical consumption across the nine schools and 50 percent in two of the individual schools.

Rosen sees the upcoming round of five roof replacements as a repeat of 2009, and urges the district to slow down and reconsider.

“For a city that prides itself on renewable resources and green infrastructure,” he says, “settling for less just doesn’t cut it.”

This summer’s roof replacement projects are a tiny portion of the $482 million bond measure, which will primarily pay to replace Roosevelt, Franklin and Grant high schools and Faubion K-8 in the next eight years.

Each of those buildings will include solar roof components, Owens says.

Savings from solar

The nine PPS schools that received solar roofs in 2009 include Woodstock, Atkinson, Scott, Creston, Jackson Middle School, Lane Middle School, Lent K-8, Pioneer High School at Columbia and Roseway Heights K-8.

The other PPS school with a solar roof is Rosa Parks School, built in 2006 to LEED Gold certification, with six photovaltaic panels that help reduce energy use in the building by 24 percent.

A Bonneville Environmental Foundation program called Solar 4R Schools provided the educational component, tying solar energy into professional development for teachers, students’ lessons, kiosks and real-time data monitoring on the energy being saved.

For example, according to solar4rschools.org, this week Rosa Parks School generated 17.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

From fossil-fueled sources, that amount of electricity would have emitted 24.5 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In kid-friendly terms, that could power an electric toothbrush for one year, a 42-inch plasma-screen TV for one day, or a typical video game system for five weeks.

Renee Loveland, sustainability manager for Gerding Edlen who helped coordinate the PPS solar roof project in 2009, says she has not been involved in or aware of any PPS projects this summer.

But she says the changing landscape of state and federal incentives for renewable energy work makes it difficult for property owners to plan for solar roof projects.

“I’m sure we were all hopeful what we’d done back then could be replicated in the future,” she says.

Community must act

Shane Endicott, founder of the nonprofit Rebuilding Center in North Portland and longtime PPS advocate, says the community must rally around the district to bring change.

“Everyone — administrators, teachers, parents, students and the community at large — is struggling around how to make our old school system produce better outcomes, rather than collaborating on designing a new system that thrives in today’s world,” he says.

“It’s like trying to modify a model-T to perform like a Tesla — it’s impossible. Without true community-owned public education, where everyone in Portland understands our future rides on the success of the children, not much will change, and it certainly won’t improve. We’ll need to invest more than money in schools to meet needs and realize the full potential of the youth in our city. Without this shift, we’ll never move far beyond the current conditions.”