The Educational Benefits of Solar Schools

Last week, over 300 members of the Young Elected Officials, a national network of elected leaders under the age of 35, gathered in Washington, DC for their 2013 National Convening. At the event, a representative of The Solar Foundation, through the support of the DOE Solar Outreach Partnership, participated in a panel on sustainable schools and presented ways to deploy solar energy on schools around the nation, including how schools can help mitigate various soft costs that inflate the cost of going solar.

As discussed in the presentation, many schools find third-party ownership – wherein a solar installation is provided as a service without the up-front cost of owning the installation – an attractive and simple way to add solar to their facilities. Nevertheless, schools can still take steps to address various soft-costs to make solar even more affordable. For example, schools can cut down on customer acquisition costs by pursuing reduced pricing on their solar installations through bulk solar purchasing with other schools and building-owners in their communities. School districts that are considering new facilities can follow solar-ready building guidelines to make future solar installations less costly. Taking such steps can reduce the cost of going solar whether through direct purchase or third-party ownership.

During the session’s moderated discussion with the audience, composed primarily of elected school board officials, an insightful conversation ensued regarding how schools can get started on integrating solar energy on their buildings, and other ways schools can become ‘green.’ One of the more apparent ways to ‘green’ a school is to install solar panels, or any other type of renewable energy source, on the school’s rooftop. Different financing mechanisms and resources are available to support schools and municipalities if they choose to install solar on their facilities.

Installing solar on schools may be a financial decision to cut down on energy costs, but solar can be an educational tool as well, a subject discussed in the presentation. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2001 Nation’s Report Card, only 32% of eighth grade students are meeting the “proficient” knowledge level in science. However, eighth grade students who participated in hands-on projects in science classes receive higher science scores. With so many students still struggling with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, introducing solar into school facilities may encourage students to learn more about the sciences, and may even lead them to pursue STEM-oriented careers. In addition, research shows that environmental based education programs have a positive effect on critical thinking skills. In other words, a strong environmental education program that includes hands-on learning (e.g., via a solar installation) adds to a comprehensive green school initiative, and, most importantly, encourages students to become environmental stewards in the future.

As the solar industry continues to grow, increasing the need for solar workers, the future solar workforce lies in our younger generations. Integrating science-related education can greatly benefit students as well as reduce the carbon-intensity of our electrical grid. One way of achieving more solar on schools, beyond the various financing options mentioned in the presentation, is through The Brian D. Robertson Memorial Solar Schools Fund. This Fund is a project of The Solar Foundation that is working with the solar industry and various philanthropic organizations to help provide solar installations to 20,000 schools by the year 2020.

For more information on how municipalities can install solar in their schools, including how to mitigate solar installation soft costs, please look on the Resources page on our website. Furthermore, The Solar Foundation and other members of the Solar Outreach Partnership will gladly help your community address any barriers to increase installed solar through our free Technical Assistance program.