Construction crews are fitting eight Marana Unified School District schools with solar panels that will fill most of the facilities' electrical needs and drastically cut the district's utilities costs.

The panels are being installed at no cost to the district, and are expected to generate as much as 80 percent of each campus's electricity needs.

The panels are going up at Estes, Ironwood, Quail Run, Coyote Trail, Twin Peaks, and Butterfield Elementary Schools, as well as Marana Middle School and MCAT High School.

The work at Estes, Marana Middle and MCAT started in May and is scheduled to finish before school begins on Aug. 5. The rest of the work started in early June and will conclude in September.

District spokeswoman Tamara Crawley said the district hopes to acquire the technology for its nine other schools as resources become available. It chose the current schools based on various factors, such as current infrastructure and campus layout.

Once it chose the schools, the district looked for aesthetically pleasing and functional places for the panels, installing them in areas in need of shade, such as parking areas and playgrounds.

Crawley said the community has embraced the project.

"We've had no complaints. In fact, we're receiving good compliments and good praise - not just from staff but also from parents in our community," Crawley said. "Our community appreciates the fact that we're continuing to work on how to reduce operating costs."

There's also an educational benefit. Teachers and students will have access to a Web-based monitoring system that tracks the solar production in real time.

Phoenix-based firm Kennedy Partners and Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group are investing in and facilitating the project. Local firm Core Construction is installing the panels.

The district is leasing the panels and paying for the energy they provide via kilowatt hour, but at a lower rate than it would to Tucson Electric Power.

Russell Federico, the district's executive director of operational support, said the lowering cost of solar power made the project possible.

"We've been pursuing alternative power sources, and solar will reduce our costs considerably," Federico said. "Companies are in the market once the costs get to that point."

Federico said it was difficult to estimate how much money the districts will save because utility contracts are in a constant state of flux, and the amount of solar energy each school uses could vary.

"Our community appreciates the fact that we're continuing to work on how to reduce operating costs."

Tamara Crawley, Marana Unified spokeswoman

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or pvillarreal@azstarnet.com