U.S. schools quickly climbing learning curve in solar power

America's K-12 schools are among the fastest adopters of solar power in the United States, with an estimated 3,000 new solar installations coming online between 2008 and 2012, a fivefold increase, according to a new study from the Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The output from today's 3,752 solar-equipped schools is on the order of 490 megawatts, enough to power tens of thousands of classrooms while offsetting nearly 443,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the solar organizations, whose findings were published yesterday in a nationwide survey.

Moreover, the findings suggest that schools and school systems have shaved millions of dollars from their utility bills by installing solar panels, allowing for greater investment in textbooks, teachers and educational programs.

"It's a trifecta for schools," Andrea Luecke, the Solar Foundation's president and executive director, said in a telephone interview. "On the one hand, these systems are allowing schools to save millions of dollars every year. But they're also enriching students through interactive learning, and they're providing a big environmental benefit by providing clean energy."

Early adopters of school-based solar systems were drawn initially to the educational or even symbolic value of mostly small systems, but today schools are tapping solar at a much larger scale. They are relying on photovoltaic panels to meet significant amounts of their electricity needs.

In California, for example, 963 schools are producing 217 MW using solar panels, according to the analysis, roughly the amount generated by a utility-scale power plant. New Jersey and Arizona follow in terms of total solar generation from school sites, with 91.4 MW and 66.2 MW, respectively, according to the report.

The East Coast, however, claims the largest school-based solar arrays, and six of the top 10 largest arrays serve schools or school districts in New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York.

A solar farm feeds a Mass. school (and its budget)

The Lawrenceville School outside Trenton, N.J., hosts the largest array, a 6.1 MW system occupying a 30-acre site on the campus of the 800-student private high school. The solar panels produce 90 percent of the school's electricity needs, and during peak generation excess power is sold to Public Service Electric & Gas under a net-metering arrangement.

Lisa Gillard, a spokeswoman for the school, said in an email that "the solar farm is much more than a collection of solar panels." In addition to providing clean energy to the school, "the facility also serves as unique, hands-on living laboratory and case study for our science and mathematics classes." The site also hosts a wildflower garden that attracts bees, which in turn pollinate fruits and vegetables at the school's traditional farm.

The public school system in Plymouth, Mass., meanwhile, claims the country's second-largest school-based array, at 5.57 MW of capacity. Power from the system, built by Borrego Solar of San Diego, is estimated to meet 60 percent of the 8,000-student school system's energy needs and generate $500,000 in annual energy bill savings. A second solar site being developed by Borrego should boost the Plymouth school system's solar output to 8 MW, according to school officials.

Solar's success in schools, according to the analysis, can be attributed to a combination of factors. These include an abundance of solar-ready rooftop space on school buildings nationwide, rising awareness about the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy, and the proliferation of third-party financing programs that allow schools and school districts to construct solar arrays with little or no upfront costs.

Budget-strapped schools also have a powerful incentive to cut energy costs wherever possible, Luecke said, and much of that savings can be converted into investment in other projects and programs that directly benefit student learning.

"Schools tend to be big energy consumers, especially during warm periods when air conditioners are running during peak school hours," she noted. Demand is also driven by overhead lighting, personal computers and other electrical equipment necessary to keep school buildings and classrooms functioning.

As with residential and commercial solar adopters, schools are also finding solar systems more attractive as installation costs decline. According to the latest market report from SEIA and partner GTM Research, national blended average system prices dropped 53 percent between 2010 and the second quarter of 2014.

The newer math


In fact, the Solar Foundation analysis found that 450 school districts nationwide could each save more than $1 million over 30 years by installing a solar system, and some districts could see energy savings reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

"That's a lot of money," Rhone Resch, SEIA's president and CEO, said of the findings. "In a time of tight budgets and rising costs, solar can be the difference between hiring new teachers -- or laying them off."

Despite the significant benefits provided by school-based solar systems, the Solar Foundation notes that far more schools could be tapping the sun's energy. In fact, the analysis states that between 40 and 60 percent of the nation's roughly 125,000 schools could go solar cost-effectively.

Luecke said that further expanding the solar portfolio of U.S. schools depends on continued efforts to educate school districts and local elected officials about the benefits of going solar, including the economic benefits of third-party ownership. "Most of these systems were installed because there was a local champion who said, 'Let's do this,'" she said.

One of those champions is the Chicago-based Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, which has promoted and financed the installation of hundreds of small-scale solar systems at K-12 schools throughout Illinois. As a result, Illinois now ranks third in the nation for school-based solar systems, ahead of Arizona, Massachusetts and Florida.

Luecke also credited nonprofit groups such as the National Solar Schools Consortium, which aims to have 20,000 solar systems installed at K-12 and postsecondary schools by 2020. Such organizations, she said, are essential to "keeping the narrative going" about solar before administrators and school boards nationwide.

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