IRVINE — The Irvine Unified School District has indentified an untapped resource: 2.5 million square feet of largely unused rooftop space.

Thanks to a 2009 decision by the school board to partner with SunEdison and SPG Solar, that rich supply of space will soon make room for multiple solar panel projects.

Some 16 sites were chosen throughout the district to receive the rooftop panels. Panels are already being installed at the district office at 5050 Barranca Parkway, although on top of vehicle shade structures there.

Several other locations that have already started installation of the panels are estimated to be complete by mid-November. They are Rancho San Joaquin, Lakeside and Venado middle schools; College Park, Santiago Hills, Turtle Rock and Plaza Vista School elementary schools; and the Early Childhood Learning Center.

The remaining five sites — University and Irvine high schools, Springbrook and Northwood elementary schools and South Lake Middle School — should be complete by the end of the year.

"We really see this as the first step, over many years, to reduce our carbon footprint," Mark Sontag, district coordinator of math and science, said of the partnership which, in a sense, "leases" out rooftop space in exchange for reduced-cost energy rates.

Under terms of the agreement, SunEdison and SPG Solar will build, maintain and insure the solar projects for a term of 20 years, although the district has an option to buy out any of the sites' panels after five years, Sontag explained.

Due to a locked-in, predicable rate increase, the district is estimated to save $225,728 in the project's first year and around $8.5 million over the 20-year term, according to district documents.

"The potential savings is just one reason why the board approved this, but there are actually two reasons," Sontag said. "The first reason was really what we could add to the curriculum for educating students, which of course is our main job as a school district."

Last year, the district piloted a program for sixth-graders to teach the children about various renewable energy sources through hands-on lab activities, such as building miniature windmills and battery-operated cars.

"We just started with basics and created activities that could be done at [the sixth-grade] level," said Battina Pierce, elementary science specialist.

With the success of the pilot, Pierce and other district staff are looking to expand the renewable energy labs to the lower grade levels.

Although the science behind renewable energy is quite complicated, "there are ways of breaking it down so it is understandable at all the levels," Pierce said.

And, once the solar panel projects are complete, teachers will have their very own first-hand demonstration of how one type of renewable energy works.

Using an Internet-based monitoring system, teachers and students will be able to track in real time the amount of energy converted by the panels and the energy consumed by the school.

These sites were chosen because the angle of the roof and available space fit best with the solar panel technology, Sontag explained, however, it is his hope that eventually many more district solar panel sites will be planned and students with access to the tracking technology.

"We feel as a school district that we have a responsibility to educate students about the pros and cons of sustainable energy so that when making decisions at ballot box they have the necessary background," Sontag said. "It's not about making decisions for them, but giving them the ability to make the choice for themselves."