Brighter Future: K-12 Solar Schools

When school budgets get tough, the tough get going. Going solar, that is. Take for example Drury High School, a small public school of about 600 students located in the rural Massachusetts town of North Adams, which began making investments in solar energy in 2012 in recognition of the significant environmental benefits – chiefly in the form of reduced carbon emissions – the technology can deliver. Since the system began operation that summer, the school has been able to offset over 140,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions – roughly equivalent to the emissions from over 7,000 gallons of gasoline. In pursuit of this goal, the school was also setting itself up to weather some rough fiscal seas on the horizon. With a declining population and a higher poverty rate than the rest of the county and the state, North Adams has a comparatively small tax base to tap and a correspondingly small budget. In the face of reduced state funding for schools, the cost savings from the solar energy system have allowed Drury High School to preserve its current teaching staff and academic programs – and to even expand its curriculum to include lessons and service learning opportunities on clean energy. While Drury High School serves as an impressive case study for how schools can leverage the financial, educational, and environmental benefits of solar, it is just one of at least 3,752 K-12 schools across the U.S. identified as having a solar energy system in a new study by The Solar Foundation, entitled Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools. This report not only showcases the current use solar energy on K-12 schools, but provides an original analysis to estimate the potential of current non-solar schools to “go solar” cost effectively. Produced with research support from the Solar Energy Industries Association and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Solar Outreach Program and the Sierra Club, this study also highlights reasons why schools are switching to solar energy, the various challenges and opportunities for still more schools to adopt solar, and the first-ever baseline on the number of K-12 schools with solar already installed. These 3,752 solar schools account for approximately 2.7 million American students – each of whom now benefit from or think about solar energy every day. Of this total, 3,727 installations are solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, which constitute 490 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity generating a combined 642,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year. Through these investments in solar, schools are able to avoid $77.8 million in utility electricity costs each year – an amount roughly equivalent to 115,000 tablet computers or nearly 2,200 annual teachers’ salaries.

510kW PV system on George Washington Carver Elementary School in Maryland (Courtesy of Standard Solar)

510kW PV system on George Washington Carver Elementary School in Maryland
(Courtesy of Standard Solar)

Though these findings are encouraging, there still remains a massive untapped potential for schools to benefit from solar. An original analysis conducted for this report found that an average of 56,000 schools can install solar in a cost-effective manner and that 450 individual school districts could save over $1,000,000 over 30 years with solar PV. The report also lays out reasons for schools going solar. Four years ago, the average cost of commercial rooftop PV systems was $6.00 per wattDC – a price that had fallen by more than half by the second quarter of 2014, and is well on its way toward the SunShot Initiative goal of $1.25/W by 2020. In addition, solar provides teachers and students with unique educational opportunities, providing a real-world example of many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts. Solar also provides significant environmental benefits; installing an average-sized school solar PV system will produce 117,000 kilowatt hours of electricity and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 tons each year. First among the challenges facing schools interested in solar is the common issue of securing financing to cover the upfront cost of a system. For schools and other non-tax paying entities unable to direct advantage of federal solar tax credits, financing a system can be especially difficult. Given this, the report outlines a number of other financing mechanisms available to schools, and encourages schools to use a combination of these when possible. In addition, the report outlines a number of lessons learned from previous solar projects and provides a guide on first steps in project development to allow still more schools to “go solar” with greater confidence The results of this seminal research – including free access to the report, the full database of solar installations on K-12 schools, and an interactive pin map showing the solar status and potential of all 125,000 schools in the U.S. – are available at schools.tsfcensus.org. About The Solar Foundation The Solar Foundation (TSF) is a leading provider of high-quality economic impact analyses on the solar industry, a trusted technical assistance provider for public sector implementation, and a solar schools champion. Founded in 1977 as an independent nonprofit, its mission is to increase understanding of solar energy through strategic research that educates the public and transforms markets. As part of an ongoing effort to promote the use of solar on schools, TSF will now offer technical assistance through the Solar Outreach Partnership program to help schools navigate the process of going solar. For more information about this opportunity, please contact TSF at info@solarfound.org or the Solar Outreach Partnership at solar-usa@iclei.org.

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