Op-Ed: Solar Panels at SB Unified Schools Fail to Generate Electricity Two Years After Installation

By Joan Albion

As a member of the Santa Barbara community, I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the recent news surrounding the solar panel project at six Santa Barbara Unified School District sites.

After two years of installation, it is disheartening to learn that these solar arrays are generating “nothing but shade.” This has left me feeling deceived and questioning the substantial amount of money invested in this initiative.

The Santa Barbara Unified School District had ambitious plans for the solar project, envisioning that “14000 solar panels and six supplementary battery systems across 14 school sites \[would] eventually generate a majority of its power and save nearly 8 million in electricity costs.” However, two years later, many of the solar panels are still non-operational, with district spokesperson Ed Zuchelli acknowledging that “Four stalled sites are close to going online” while the rest are awaiting approval.

What is “close” and how long does this approval process take?

I understand some of the delays are due to supply chain issues because of the pandemic, byt the required electrical upgrades permission from Southern California Edison should have been factored into this project.

It is concerning to note that despite these challenges, the district and its contractor, Engie North America, assured the community that the solar panels would be operational by now. I know I am not alone in feeling frustrated and, frankly, lied to.

One quote from the article that particularly resonated with my sentiments was someone who described the high schools’ solar panels as “only ornamental.”

The article states that the up-front cost for all sites was about $2 million, a substantial investment that was supposed to yield long-term savings in electricity costs and environmental benefits.

The district had initially projected significant cost savings over the project’s lifetime, with a recent analysis showing that the district would save $14 million compared to the originally anticipated $8 million in electricity costs. While these savings are commendable, the actualization of these financial benefits has been delayed due to the prolonged non-operational status of the solar panels.

What will become of \ the district’s broader commitment to cleaner energy and sustainability initiatives? The anticipation of the solar panels providing the district with 70% of its electricity use is an objective that the we have been eagerly looking forward to, but if the same group of people are planning other clean energy projects, I have my doubts they will be successful.

It is imperative for the district and its contractors to provide transparent and proactive communication about the progress of the solar panels, as well as a clear plan to address the delays and ensure the community reaps the intended benefits of this significant investment.

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  1. From reading the original article – a fair bit of the inability to bring them online is stalling by SCE. I can only imagine what the electrical bills are for La Cumbre, San Marcos, SB High school, DP, etc. How much of the delay is SCE not wanting to lose $?

  2. I urge everyone to read the article:

    Having contracted for a power purchase agreement and solar system through Vivint Solar, now owned by Sun Run, in 2017, the explanations for the delay in the Independent article sound familiar and are common. Maybe not *this* long, but common.
    I am not concerned by the delay. The new savings projections are great and the fact SBUSD got the system for the price they did is fantastic.

    • Also, looking on the bright side (play Monty Python here):

      “The district does have eight school sites with solar panels on and working, including five elementary schools and three junior highs. However, it has been waiting on final approvals to operationalize the remaining six sites, said Lani Wild, who is on the project team for Engie North America, the contractor that owns and operates the district’s panels.”

  3. Can confirm that SCE is absolutely the problem in these situations. They did the same to me when we installed solar panels years ago and haven’t changed since. They simply lie about the issue. Claim they don’t have staff to check but the sites are already OKd by local government inspectors. And they don’t hire more staff. The PUC has sold out to the utility companies and the customers are left to pay the tab. The only apparent solution is to have a municipal electric system such as Lompoc/Sacramento/San Diego/LA that can act without worrying about the profits for stockholders.

  4. More anti-renewable misinformation and hysterics. So easy to blame the panels and ignore the true problem.

    It would be really interesting to some day, finally, get a real and articulate response to the question “why do some hate renewable energy so much?”

  5. Nothing hysterical or “anti-renewables” about anything here – just legit questions, and answers it seems in the comments, as to why this taxpayer-funded multimillion dollar venture is greatly stalled out. No need for one to be so defensive. Appreciate the info about SCE. Good to know from those with real-life experience.

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