Here Comes the Sun: Educational, Operational and Financial Opportunities to Consider When Adding Solar Energy to Your District

By Bendici, Ray | District Administration, May 2017 | Go to article overview

Here Comes the Sun: Educational, Operational and Financial Opportunities to Consider When Adding Solar Energy to Your District


Bendici, Ray, District Administration


Solar power can provide a ray of sunshine for districts looking to control energy expenses. A sustainable and clean power source, solar involves very few moving parts and requires little maintenance. It also creates learning opportunities for students and reduces carbon footprints.

Nearly 4,000 K12 schools have been fitted with solar installations as of 2014, according to the "Brighter Futures" report for the U.S. Department of Energy, based on data from the Solar Energy Industries

Association. More than 3,000 of the systems were added between 2008 and 2014, and based on that pace, installations have most likely doubled since then, says Alex Winn, program director of The Solar Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that supports expanding solar power and that helped compile the "Brighter Futures" report. "A lot of folks have gotten up to speed on the opportunity that solar provides in terms of savings and how those funds can hopefully be returned from operating budgets to other areas for capital improvements, investments in programming or additional teacher salaries," says Winn.

Cost analysis

Five years ago, Granite School District in Salt Lake City partnered with the state to install 5-kilowatt solar arrays on the roofs of four elementary schools. Each array has approximately 20 3.5-by-5.5-foot panels, and is capable of producing 5,000 watts of power per hour at peak sunlight, usually two to three hours at midday.

Along with saving energy, administrators wanted to provide educational opportunities. In science classes, for instance, students can go online to access and analyze the performance data. Monitors in the cafeteria also show how the arrays are generating power, giving students a "hands-on" feel for the workings of solar panels.

Encouraged by the experience, the district last year added a 17-kilowatt system at Cottonwood High School, courtesy of a grant from Rocky Mountain Power's Blue Sky renewable energy program.

"We're producing about 13,000 kilowatt hours per year at the high school, so we pay about 5 cents per kilowatt hour," says district energy management specialist Dan Dotson, who estimates the output is equal to powering the school's cafeteria. Rocky Mountain Power's average rate is around 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour, so electricity produced by the arrays is cheaper. "It's not a ton but it does defer some costs."

Funding solar initiatives is an ongoing challenge for districts. For business and consumers, installation and system costs have lowered in recent years thanks to tax credit programs, but schools cannot take advantage of those breaks because they are tax-exempt.

To pay for solar, many districts rely on bond measures and capital budget expenditures combined with grants, loans and rebates. They can also use solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs), which are tradable energy credits based on the electricity generated after a solar power system is installed. An SREC is earned for every 1,000 kilowatt hours of energy produced by solar; the value varies by local utility, and not every state offers the incentive.

Systems can be purchased outright with cash or a loan, or they can be leased through an energy provider. Districts and energy companies can also sign energy services performance contracts (ESPCs), which focus on energy upgrades and efficiencies, including solar. In some states, an energy services company installs an array on behalf of the district and receives the tax credits, and then trades the value back to the district.

And some districts bundle several sources of funding. Last summer, Beaumont USD in Southern California installed solar-energy canopies over its high school staff parking lot, using funds from the state's Clean Energy Jobs Act, California Solar Initiative utility incentives, and other local programs. The system expects to produce more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. …

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