Neighbors still unhappy with school's stalled solar project

SONOMA, Calif.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District's solar project has been controversial from the beginning. Neighbors claim they didn't know the panels were going up and now they are wondering why they aren't working.

Rows and rows of solar panels are popping up at Sonoma Valley Unified School District sites with the promise of saving millions.

"We expect to save over $26 million over the next 25 years," SVUSD Deputy Superintendent Justin Frese said.

There's just one problem...

"Right now they're not operating," neighbor Nancie Ligon said.

The nearly $10 million project was supposed to be finished in August 2011 and the district was supposed to see a million dollars in savings this school year. And while some sites look ready to go, others don't even have the panels on them.

"They destroyed the peace and the serenity of our backyard," Ligon said.

The people living across from the district main office on Railroad Avenue say the panels block their view of the rolling hills.

Neighbors have complained the schools didn't give proper notification for the solar project. The district did post notices of the school board vote in the local paper on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve back in 2010, but never said where the meeting would be held.

"I want to feel insured that those panels are going to be lowered," neighbor Anne Phillips said.

Neighbors spoke out at school board meetings about the panels on Railroad Avenue that were supposed to be lowered last year. They haven't been. They say the plants put in to hide the panels are dying and weeds are starting to reach the panels.

"Most of those look dead; so I still think they're pretty ugly, the whole vegetation isn't pretty," neighbor Lois Lourie said.

"The school keeps saying that it's a construction problem; they're not finished and they don't really get into details," Ligon said.

The I-Team went to a recent school board meeting to ask district officials about the hold up.

Dan Noyes: "Why isn't the solar working? It's an easy, easy question."
Justin Frese: "Why isn't the solar working? The contractor has run into a series of problems outside of our control."

Frese has been overseeing the solar project

Dan Noyes: "So how much money has the district lost in failed savings? It's been six months right?"
Justin Frese: "Just one moment."

The I-Team tried to ask school board President Gary Desmet about the solar panels not working. He refused to discuss the issue.

Dan Noyes: "Why is it so hard for you to answer a question?"
Gary Desmet: "I don't know why you are pushing so hard."
Dan Noyes: "When people are evasive with me I push. And you won't answer a basic question?
Gary Desmet: "Superintendent?"

Desmet called for district Superintendent Louann Carlomango to answer for him and the rest of the elected school board.

"Yes, we have concerns that the solar is not up and running and yes, we wish it were up and running," Carlomango said.

Frese said later, Roebbelen Construction has replaced the person heading up the project and the contractor is paying $1,000 a day in penalties. The company will wind up paying more than $250,000.

That won't make up the $1 million the district hoped to save this year, so, according to Frese, the district may have to spend $300,000-$400,000 or more out of the general fund for their electricity.

The I-Team asked Roebbelen about the solar panel delay. They told us they don't comment on "open contracts."

"I don't think they did their due diligence," Ligon said.

The school board accepted the lowest bid on the solar project -- the next lowest bid was about $2 million more. There's no way of knowing now if a different contractor could have delivered on time, but at least one board member wonders what lesson these school officials should take away from this process.

"Maybe we learned the lesson that cheap is more expensive in the end," Camerino Hawing said.

There was talk of filing suit against Roebbelen Construction for the loss of savings for this school year. The district says they just want the panels up and running and does not want a long and potentially costly legal dispute. At last check, the school district says the solar panels will be online in late May and the savings will begin next school year. We will keep an eye on it.

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