Solar Outreach Partnership Finds Massive Untapped Solar Potential at K-12 Schools

In September 2014, The Solar Foundation – working under the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership (SolarOPs) – published a first-of-its-kind study investigating the use of solar energy at K-12 schools across the United States. This report, entitled Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools – found that 3,752 public and private K-12 schools in nearly all 50 states have installed solar energy systems. But the report did not stop at looking at the current state of solar on schools. Through an original analysis looking at all 125,000+ K-12 schools in the nation, the study found that between 40,000 and 72,000 additional schools could adopt solar cost-effectively (i.e., realize a positive net present value on an investment in solar energy over 30 years).

The vast majority of solar energy systems currently installed at K-12 schools are photovoltaic (PV) systems. Together, these systems represent 490 megawatts (MW) of installed solar capacity. To put this figure into perspective, if all the K-12 solar schools in the nation represented a single state, it would be the 7th-largest solar state, with more capacity than current top-ten states such as Hawaii, Colorado, New York, and Texas. The electricity generated by these systems on an annual basis (roughly 642,000 MWh) represents nearly $80 million per year in utility bills – an average of $21,000 per school. Not surprisingly, more schools have been going solar as installed costs have continued to decrease in recent years, with nearly two-thirds of all systems installed since 2010.

Though The Solar Foundation’s (TSF) database of solar schools (available for free download) is likely not exhaustive, it does represent the most comprehensive effort to collect data on these projects to date. Recognizing these limitations, TSF and its research partners developed an interactive pin map for users to check on the solar status of schools in their area, as well as a simple web form the public can use to provide information on solar schools not yet included in the database.

Perhaps of greater interest, however, is the untapped potential for still more schools to go solar cost-effectively. Assuming installed costs of $2 per watt, approximately 72,000 K-12 schools could save money by deploying solar energy systems. Fully tapping this potential would result in 5,400 MW of new solar PV capacity – just under one-third of the capacity currently installed throughout the entire nation. The 6.9 million MWh of electricity produced by these systems each year would be valued at nearly $800 million, and would offset annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking just over 1 million passenger vehicles off the road.

Recognizing this potential – and that schools often face challenges in tapping this potential – the SolarOPs team has developed a number of resources and services designed to help schools and their districts navigate the process of “going solar.” The SolarOPs Toolkit for Installing Solar on K-12 Schools was designed to provide public school officials with a starting point for pursuing their own projects, and includes resources for helping schools pre-screen sites for solar and understand the financial benefits of investing in solar, educating schools and districts on best practices for developing successful requests for proposals (RFPs) for solar projects, understanding financing options, and much more. The toolkit also provides links to resources and efforts outside of the SolarOPs program. Beyond these resources, SolarOPs provides complimentary technical assistance through which members of our team of solar experts can deliver customized solutions for schools seeking a hands-on approach in navigating the process of going solar or who need in-depth support in overcoming unique challenges hindering these efforts.