Growing number of schools move toward solar power
(District of Columbia) Districts are switching to solar power at a drastically increasing rate and enjoying long-term cost-savings, but solar energy nationally remains an underutilized resource in schools, according to a new study.
The report, compiled on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy by the Solar Foundation–a D.C.-based advocacy organization that promotes solar energy–found the between 2008 and 2014, more than 3,000 schools were fitted with solar panels. Researchers estimate that number of schools has doubled since then.
Authors noted that one of the most frequently cited reasons schools gave for switching to solar was the opportunity to save money.
“While thousands of schools have already realized the cost savings and other benefits of installed solar energy capacity, this opportunity is generally underutilized,” authors of the report wrote. “Of the 125,000 schools in the country, between 40,000 and 72,000 can ‘go solar’ cost-effectively.”
In his first term, former president Barack Obama included approximately $30 million in his American Jobs Act to both boost the sustainable schools effort and simultaneously stimulate the economy. Individual states and school districts have undertaken their own efforts as well.
In 2016, a group of 21 school districts across a handful of states including California, Florida, Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia, Missouri and Michigan created a coalition to promote environmental education and influence state policies that would lead to more energy efficient, sustainable school facilities.
In Hawaii and a handful of other states, schools are using the switch to renewable energy as a teaching experience as well. The Hawaiian State Education Department said that students would have the opportunity to how solar panels are installed, learn about how they work, and analyze scalable technology such as wind turbines and solar panels after the work is complete.
The Solar Foundation began gathering data on K-12 school solar installations around the country in 2013–their findings formed the basis of the National Solar Schools Census. A handful of schools were then picked to represent diversity among school geography, school size and grade level, system size and financing type, and asked to respond to a brief email or phone survey.
Researchers found that the electricity generated in one year by nearly 4,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic systems represents a combined $77.8 million per year in utility bills‒an average of almost $21,000 per year per school. Authors of the report said the combined energy value is roughly equivalent to 155,000 tablet computers or nearly 2,200 new teachers’ salaries per year.
They also noted, however, that getting solar installation projects off the ground can be costly for schools which are unable to access the same tax breaks as private individuals.
“Though the vast majority of schools interviewed for this report had an overall positive experience in going solar and achieved the outcomes desired from their investment, seeing a solar project through to completion can sometimes entail unforeseen challenges,” researchers wrote. “One of the major challenges for schools in going solar is figuring out the most cost-effective way of paying for these systems.”
In addition to issues with financing the projects, some schools reported that procuring the necessary materials or regular maintenance was a problem too, as was ensuring the work was completed on time.
Other districts–including Sheridan Community Schools, a small, rural district in central Indiana–have found the benefits to outweigh the initial costs. The superintendent of Sheridan, Dave Mundy, told Indiana’s public radio and television affiliates in December that the district is likely to save up to $5 million over the next 20 years.
The savings, he explained, come from the fact that while the district pays off a $4.3 million loan to pay for and maintain their solar panels over 20 years, the district will have a locked-in energy rate.
Authors of the Solar Foundation study reported that districts in California, New Mexico and Missouri had similar savings as an outcome of moving to renewable energy.