San Ysidro Schools Solar Project Moving Forward

August 11, 2017

By Sandra G. Leon

The San Ysidro School District will soon be generating clean solar power at all of its campuses, and is expected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in electricity costs.

This week, the first of thousands of solar panels were installed at the District’s administration center at what will be a three-acre solar farm, and part of a larger solar project across the entire district. The system is expected to offset approximately 80 percent of the District’s SDGE costs.

“We are excited to be moving into the final phase of this project and expect to deliver the system to the District by the end of the year,” said Art Castañares, CEO of Manzana Energy, the development company responsible for the project, after he gave an update on the project to the School Board on Thursday night.

“We have been working closely with the District to meet their energy needs with solar energy while generating millions of dollars in savings over the life of the system,” Castañares added.

Castañares, who is also the publisher of La Prensa San Diego, said the project has been in the planning stages since last year when the District reached a final design on the system with Manzana Energy, a local cleantech development company.

“We received final permits from the state this June and worked to mobilize quickly after that,” Castañares added.

“This week, after preliminary construction work, we began installing the panels at the large site and will soon be installing parking lot solar canopies at the schools.”

The solar project was stalled for several years after Manzana Energy, under its subsidiary EcoBusiness Alliance, LLC, sued the District in 2012 for wrongful termination of its contract in October 2011. The company claimed its contract was cancelled after Castañares refused to go along with a “play-to-play” scheme offered by the husband of a then-school board member Raquel Marquez-Maden. Castañares alleged Maden and her husband expected him to purchase a home for them in exchange for having received the solar contract from the District.

Within months of his refusal, the company’s contract was abruptly cancelled by the Board on a 5-0 vote, with Maden having voted to cancel the contract.

Manzana also alleged that then-Superintendent Manuel Paul was involved in demanding brides from contractors, a charge Paul initially denied. During the lawsuit, though, Paul was indicted and pled guilty to a misdemeanor count of coercing a contractor to give him $2,500 in cash. Paul would later serve 60 days in federal custody.

After a three-year legal battle, Manzana Energy won a $12 million jury verdict in 2014, but immediately offered to resolve the case by reinstating the contract and building the solar project.

Under the original terms of the contract, Manzana would have owned and operated the systems for 25 years, with the District buying all of the energy for the term of the contract. After the lawsuit, the District increased the size of the project to meet its current energy needs, and elected to purchase the system outright under the buyout provisions of the agreement.

The resolution of the lawsuit elevated the District’s bond rating and allowed it to refinance existing outstanding bonds, saving taxpayers over $50 million in future payments. Just two months ago, the District was also able to finance the modernization of two of its oldest schools.

“It’s been a long road but I’m happy we are finally able to deliver this project,” Castañares said. “Had we pursued the lawsuit, the District most likely would have been bankrupt, but, instead, they are financially solvent and better able to serve the students of the community,” he concluded.

Manzana Energy also owns and operates a solar energy project at Borderview YMCA near San Ysidro, having built the system in 2013 under a 25-year contract.

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