Solar takes educators to school

As the United States trains its next generation of leaders in schools throughout the country, it’s becoming increasingly clear that solar electricity will be an integral part of the lessons they’re taught.

According to a new report, sponsored by The Solar Foundation (TSF), Generation 180 and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), there are now 5,489 K-12 schools in United States – more than 4% of the total number of such schools in the country and double the number of schools with solar just three years ago.

The report, Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools, 2nd Edition, also found that nearly 4 million school-age children currently attend schools powered by solar electricity. School districts are taking advantage of solar in part because installation prices have plummeted – 67% in the past decade and 19% in 2016 alone.

If all the school installations are combined, they total 910 MW – an 86% increase over 2014 – and produce 1.4 million MWh annually.

This year’s edition of the study builds on the first study done in 2014 and, according to Shawn Rumery, SEIA’s director of research, it’s something the groups would like to repeat every year (in case anyone wanted to endow the proejct).

“It’s actually something we would love to do every year, but the truth is that the research is time-consuming,” Rumery said. “There are more than 125,000 schools in the country and no easy way to get responses from all of them, so the onus is on us to figure out which schools have gone solar across the country.”

“This year, we were able to successfully share resources to get it across the finish line,” he added.

Tony Clifford, chief development officer at Standard Solar, a Maryland-based solar company who has a portfolio of school-based solar systems it has built and helped finance, said he was thrilled to see the study’s results.

“Increasingly,educators are recognizing the bottom line benefits of installing a solar system,” said Clifford. “By going solar, schools save money through stable electricity costs, set an example by reducing their carbon footprint, and provide a real-life educational opportunity on the power of solar power for students, faculty, staff and visitors.”

“We’ve worked with schools of all kind across all levels in urban, suburban and rural environments,” Clifford added. “The ever-increasing use of solar by educational institutions proves solar works for everyone.”

Given the sheer amount of solar installed in the state itself, it comes as no surprise that California has the most solar schools, with 1,946 participating buildings and a 489 MW capacity, but the overall solar-adoption-rate leader is Nevada, where 23% of schools use solar.

“Solar can help school districts save millions on electricity bills, freeing up funds for additional teachers, improved facilities, and enhanced academic and extracurricular programs,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation. “In addition to cost savings, solar energy installations can serve as hands-on STEM laboratories for students to learn about clean energy from the sun.”

The full report includes case studies of solar-school successes, including:

  • In Bozeman, Montana at Sacajawea Middle school, an eighth grader led a successful campaign to raise $115,000 to install solar. The funds are expected to be paid back through electricity bill savings within nine years.
  • In Reno, Nevada, Washoe County School District meets 12 percent of its energy consumption from 4.2 MW of solar installations at 35 schools, which will help the district meet its 20 percent renewable energy goal by 2020.
  • In New York State, Broadalbin-Perth Central School District is developing an 8,000-panel, 2 MW offsite solar array to help offset the costs of a capital improvement campaign. The installation is expected to save $5.3 million on electricity bills over 25 years.
  • In Arlington, Virginia, Discovery Elementary School uses solar as part of its net-zero design that is a large part of the school’s interactive energy curriculum, saving $100,000 annually on electricity bills.
  • In Bakersfield, California, Kern High School District is installing 22 MW on 27 sites, saving an estimated $80 million over 25 years.
  • In Illinois, Grayslake Community High School District is meeting 36 percent of its energy consumption through rooftop solar on two high schools and a third, ground-mounted system, saving an estimated $10 million over 25 years.

An interactive map of solar schools across the United States and resources to help schools go solar are available