Description: Creating a local microgrid improved resilience, expanded local clean energy production, and reduced dependence on transmission lines and remote electricity generation for the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD). It also guaranteed millions of dollars of savings on district electricity bills over the 28-year span of project contracts.
The SBUSD began planning for energy resilience after historic wildfires and mudslides devastated the Montecito community in Santa Barbara County, California in January 2018. The schools were called on to serve as safe havens and emergency response centers. However, without a resilient supply of electricity, the schools fell short of their full potential to serve the community.
The possibilities of advancing sustainability goals of net-zero carbon electricity, improving local resilience, and reducing electricity costs were the drivers of the SBUSD project. The school district hired consultants to analyze 18 different SBUSD sites and to assess the feasibility of developing a solar microgrid. Based on the analyses, 14 sites were identified for solar carports with 6 of the 14 also proposed for battery storage. In total, the 14 sites were projected to provide an approximate total capacity of 5 MW of solar and 5 MWh of storage. A request for proposal was issued and a single developer was selected to build, own, and operate the microgids as part of a long term power purchase agreement that also guaranteed energy cost savings to the district.
Now, more than five years after the 2018 mudslides, the school district is prepared for disasters with energy resilience hubs that can keep schools operating and provide electrified shelter where community members can gather, charge cell phones, contact loved ones, and perhaps get a hot meal. The new microgrids enhance community resilience while lowering district electricity costs. The microgrids and solar carports generate enough renewable energy to satisfy 94 to 98% of the district’s electricity load.
SBUSD is in a unique geographic area bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the south and west and a large mountain range to the north and east. The isolated region is highly prone to wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes — making the need for backup power sources particularly important.
In other parts of the country, school districts are developing microgrid projects for slightly different reasons. In New Mexico, Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), the largest district in the state, serves nearly one quarter of the state’s public school students in 143 facilities spread across over 1,200 square miles. Following its focus on energy conservation and clean energy, APS is now combining solar plus battery storage in a project at an Albuquerque high school that will reduce electricity costs, which can exceed $50,000 every month in the summer. With more than half of the summer electricity cost associated with demand charges, battery storage will be used to discharge stored electricity during peak demand periods to reduce demand charges and lower the electricity bill. A future phase of the APS project will allow the school campus to operate as a microgrid during a power outage or when disconnected from the grid. Similar to the SBUSD microgrid, this will allow the high school to remain operational and provide essential community services during power outages or disasters.
In Hawaii, Kamehameha Schools Maui (KS Maui) is building a microgrid to reduce demand on the island’s electric grid while converting to a clean, local source of electricity that will benefit the community.
Solar microgrids such as those serving SBUSD, APS, and KS Maui can advance clean energy and local generation goals, reduce electricity costs, and improve community resilience. They can be developed for school districts, university campuses, and other similar entities. Going beyond traditional rooftop solar or microgrids that serve only a single customer, microgrids that connect several essential facilities can provide indefinite renewables-driven resilience to the most critical community loads — and serve these loads for extended periods of time.
State and federal funding for microgrid projects, including the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), can reduce financial challenges of upfront costs for solar arrays, batteries, and other microgrid components. Procurement contracts, such as that used by the SBUSD, can provide guaranteed electricity cost savings for the duration of the contract.
- create solar microgrids at schools to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
- enhance community resilience
- provide more reliable electricity service
- MW of local renewable generation capacity via microgrids
- MWh of local battery storage in microgrid
Time to Implement:
- Five years (SBUSD)
Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) Solar Microgrids: An Ideal Location for Solar Microgrids
Santa Barbara School District Launches Game-changing Solar Microgrids
Santa Barbara Power Line Failure and Potential for Microgrids
Brighter Future 2022 – Albuquerque Public Schools Leading the Charge Toward Resiliency (pg 16)
KS Maui launches renewable energy microgrid
Microgrids can be a building block to more resilient communities
SBUSD Case Study for San Marcos High School
Solar Power at Santa Barbara Schools
Microgrids Across the United States
Bringing solar to life: Why K-12 schools should embrace new IRA funding
Solar Power in Your Community – Department of Energy Guidebook
Santa Barbara Unified School District
720 Santa Barbara Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Phone: (805) 963-4338
Facilities Design and Construction
Albuquerque Public Schools
915 Oak St. SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106
Phone: (505) 848-8816 ext. 67319
Director of Operations
Kamehameha Schools Maui
275 ‘A‘apueo Pkwy
Pukalani, HI 96768
Phone: (808) 573-7248
Founder and Executive Director