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Gathered for the ceremonial “flipping of the switch” to commemorate completion of Gustine Unified School District’s solar project recently were, from left, board member Loretta Rose; Russell Hazan, the district’s maintenance director; board members Pat Rocha, Gary Silva, Kevin Cordeiro and Kevin Bloom; and Dr. Bryan Ballenger, district superintendent.

GUSTINE - The Gustine Unified School District last week commemorated a district-wide solar project which is expected to save millions of dollars in energy costs over the next 25 years while providing an array of additional benefits.

District administrators, representatives of solar provider ENGIE, and dignitaries gathered for a ceremonial “throw-the-switch” program last Tuesday afternoon.

Fittingly enough, group gathered beneath one of the raised solar structures on the Gustine High campus to mark the occasion.

The “throw the switch” commemoration came a few weeks ahead of the actual activation of the systems. Dr. Bryan Ballenger, district superintendent, said that a transformer upgrade at Gustine High must be completed before the systems are energized.

He anticipates the panels will be activated before the end of November.

“This is an extremely long-term commitment, but it is one that we needed to make for our students,” Ballenger told Mattos Newspapers. “It really is the future, and we people want to see us doing, saving money for our kids and bettering the planet.”

There is no up-front cost to the district for the solar structures.

ENGIE installed and will operate and maintain the systems through the 25-year life of its agreement with Gustine Unified, Ballenger noted.

The district will purchase power from ENGIE at a fixed rate of 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour, he explained.

The projected savings to the district are $8.5 million over the life of the project, Ballenger said. That estimate is based on PG&E rate increases of 4 percent annually, he added, and the district’s savings will be even more substantial if PG&E rate hikes are higher.

“That money can be better spent on our students and on our programs, rather than sending it off to energy companies,” Ballenger said during the program.

Solar energy systems are in place at Gustine High, Gustine Middle School, Gustine Elementary and Romero. Each is scaled to meet 100 percent of the school’s energy needs and can be expanded if need be should a campus grow.

The panels play a dual role by providing cover for parking lots, bus zones, playgrounds and more on the various campuses, offering shade in the warmer months and shelter from rains during the winter.

Each site principal was consulted by design engineers to determine the most beneficial placement of the solar structures, Ballenger noted.

“They were very strategically placed,” he said.

ENGIE will also provide a STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) curriculum which the district can incorporate into its educational offerings, Ballenger pointed out.

Two students spoke at the ceremony last week.

Gustine Elementary student Cayla Finley said the solar arrays were welcome additions to the campus, and will benefit not only the school but the planet.

Megan Azevedo, ASB president at Gustine High, said the district’s commitment to solar reflected its willingness to “become part of the solution in energy conservation.”

ENGIE fully guarantees the power production, Ballenger said.

At the end of the contract, GUSD can either enter into an extension, have the solar equipment removed or reach an agreement to purchase the equipment.