Tucson Unified School District is working on reducing its carbon footprint by installing solar panels in more than 40 of its schools.

The project, anticipated to wrap up construction in about 18 months, could be the largest of its kind in the country, said Cara Rene, director of communications at TUSD.

PHOTO: AZPM Staff
Cara Rene, director of communications at Tucson Unified School District.

"Soleng Tom Elementary School (is) the second one of our elementary schools to have the solar structures built ... It is the start of a really extensive solar project for TUSD," Rene said for Friday's broadcast of Arizona Week. "We are able to be a leader in the nation for school districts in putting this many solar panels on our schools."

The district anticipates saving $11 million in 20 years, with approximately $17,000 the first year, she explained. But most important, she said, it will create carbon footprint reduction. TUSD estimates that the solar energy will keep 19,000 tons of carbon dioxide emission and 23.5 tons of nitrous oxide out of the atmosphere in the first year.

Another positive is that no money is coming from the district's pocket for the structures' construction and maintenance, Rene said.

"It is a win-win for the district because the district did not have to put any money up front," she said. "Basically (the Constellation Co.) ... is installing them. We are buying the energy from natural power and energy, so we are going to see savings in that we don't own them, so we don't have to do the maintenance on (the panels)."

TUSD has been coping with recent budget cuts, which hit classrooms and administrative entities. Rene said savings that the district will see with the solar panels could go into classrooms.

"The idea is to get money in the classroom always, so when we look at savings ... the idea is that lots of other things are going on in the district right now for efficiency ... so there are multiple things happening right now to be able to get more money for the classroom," she said.

The district also plans to incorporate the panels into its curriculum, "with the goal of encouraging students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math," a news release from TUSD said.

In total, about 38,000 solar panels will be up throughout TUSD, a scale that, Rene said, has not been seen in any other school district in the country.

"With 40-plus schools, it just hasn't happened," she said. "We are happy we are leading the way. People are excited that we have taken this step. We have told the community that we were trying to really find opportunities to be more cost effective and cost efficient, and this is a huge way to be able to do that. Clearly solar energy in a place like Tucson ... just makes good sense."

PHOTO: AZPM Staff
Crew installing solar panels at Tucson's Soleng Tom Elementary School in April 2014.