Fuel cells heating up Irvine schools

Editor's note: This corrects the amount the school district expects to save in energy costs.

Thanks to fuel cells, students at University and Woodbridge high schools may be swimming in a sustainable pool next year.

The technology was approved last month during an Irvine Unified School District school board meeting. Over the next 20 years, the fuel cells could save the district as much as $567,698 at each school.

"We set up an effort about two years ago to go after renewable energy sources to help the district save money in the long run," said school board member Mike Parham.

The first of the projects was a partnership with SunEdison and SPG Solar to install solar panels on 21 of the district's sites.

The project could save Irvine $8 million in energy expenditures over the next two decades, according to the district's website.

The district has been researching other areas to use renewable energy, not only to cut costs but to also educate the students about the importance of the eco-friendly alternative, Parham said.

The district initially met with the National Fuel Cell Research Center, which is based at UC Irvine, but decided the technology wasn't there yet.

While at the Green Schools Summit, Parham and other school officials noticed the ClearEdge booth and after talking a bit, realized fuel cells weren't entirely out of the picture, Parham said.

The fuel cells, which are about the size of a refrigerator, convert natural gas into energy. The byproduct is heat.

"If you don't have a way to use the heat exhaust, it's not cost effective," said Mark Sontag, the math and science curriculum coordinator and sustainable program supervisor for the district.

With a new pool being built at Woodbridge, heat was definitely in need.

"It turns out fuel cells are more effective when you have a consistent need for energy," Parham said. "It works with the idea of a pool because you have to heat it all the time. Rather than having to heat up this entire thing all over again, it's cheaper to keep it heated all night long."

The plans for the Woodbridge pool were already done but the school district had them rewritten to factor in the fuel cells, Parham said. Each school will get six fuel cells to heat their swimming pools.

The pools should be ready to go in a year. Woodbridge's pool should be finished by the time students start in the fall and University's pool should be ready soon after.

To stay up-to-date on the district's sustainable programs, visit IUSD NewsFlash at newsflash.iusd.org.

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