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The Benefits of Solar Power For Schools

Since utility costs are one of the few areas of a school's budget that can’t be trimmed without negatively affecting the student experience, growing numbers of administrators are exploring the benefits of solar power for schools.

School facilities are excellent candidates for solar conversion, particularly large campuses spread out over a wide geographic area. For schools, solar panels can easily offset monthly utility bills. With a larger installation, it may even be possible to switch to 100% renewable energy. In addition, solar energy in schools presents a great teaching opportunity that can enrich classroom content with real-world examples of the benefits of renewable energy.

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Schools have a unique advantage when it comes to solar energy due to the structure of their facilities. Most school buildings in the United States have large, flat rooftops that are ideal for rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar thermal systems. Additionally, these facilities often have school parking lots which could be put to productive use by installing solar PV canopies that harness the sun’s power and offer the added benefit of shading parked vehicles on sunny days.

Similarly, schools that have vacant land areas as part of their campus can create modest solar PV farms to further maximize their energy output. The opportunity to make the most of underutilized spaces while saving money gives administrators no reason not to consider solar power for their energy needs.

How Much Energy Does a School Use?

The Department of Energy reports that taxpayers spend $6 billion on energy costs for K-12 schools each year. This is more than what is spent on textbooks and computers combined, and it’s the second highest expenditure after salaries.

Due to the inefficiency of current systems, school energy costs are estimated at about 25% more than what is actually necessary for daily operation. According to SchoolEnergySaving.com, the average school building in the United States is 42 years old. These aging buildings were not designed with today's student population in mind. Modern technology has significantly increased the energy loads a school must meet.

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School energy use is divided as follows:

  • Lighting: 26%
  • Cooling: 26%
  • Office equipment: 20%
  • Other energy: 10%
  • Ventilation: 7%
  • Space heating: 5%
  • Regulation: 4%
  • Cooking: 1%
  • Water heating: 1%

Solar power provides a more efficient way for schools to meet their energy needs. A single silicon solar panel produces as much energy over its 30- to 40-year lifespan as a nuclear fuel rod. Efficiency of power generation results in cost savings as well as substantial ecological benefits. For every 1 kW/hr of solar energy that is produced, 300 lbs of carbon is kept out of the atmosphere.

Arizona's Role in the Rise of Renewable Energy

The development of solar power technology in the United States kicked into high gear during the 1970s Oil Embargo. As oil prices spiked, people become more interested in affordable alternatives.

Arizona has always been a leader in solar energy, thanks to the state's sunny climate. In fact, former Governor Janet Napolitano once said she viewed Arizona as having the potential to become the Persian Gulf of solar energy.

Arizona's first large scale solar field opened in Flagstaff in 1997, followed in rapid succession by similar solar projects around the state. The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) established the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) in 2007 to set an ambitious goal for the percentage of retail energy sales coming from renewable energy sources. By 2025, the standard calls for 15% renewable energy with 4.5% distributed generation from renewable sources.

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According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Arizona has the #3 ranking for installed K-12 school solar photovoltaic capacity at 66,288 kW. Arizona is also #4 in K-12 school solar photovoltaic installations, with 226 schools using solar energy as a power source. For the schools that are not currently utilizing solar energy as a power source, it's estimated that 99.1% could save money by making the switch.

Renewable Energy for Schools as a Cost-Saving Measure

The primary reason that schools are becoming more interested in the use of solar power to meet their energy needs is a desire to save money. The amount of money an individual school can save with a switch to solar energy will vary depending on factors such as location, current energy demands and the type of the solar power system installed. However, schools across the country are reporting savings that have been enough to protect teaching positions in the midst of budget cuts, update technology and expand extracurricular opportunities for students despite declining tax revenues. When every penny counts, solar energy makes it easier to balance the budget.

In Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools Report, the Solar Energy Industries Association states that there are 3,752 K-12 schools in the United States with solar installations. The electricity generated yearly from these systems represents a combined value of $77.8 million. This combined value is enough for nearly 2,200 new teachers’ salaries or 155,000 tablet computers for classroom use.

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In a 2012 article appearing in The Wall Street Journal, the superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified Schools district outside Phoenix reported the school switched to solar power because utilities were the only area in the budget with room to cut. They experienced a $20 million budget decrease in two years, with 90% of their budget going to staff, 6% going for power and 4% going for supplies. With the savings from their switch to solar power, they were able to bring back six teachers who were previously laid off due to budget cuts.

Another important economic benefit of a switch to solar power is reliable, consistent energy pricing. The price of conventional power is vulnerable to market fluctuations that make it hard to estimate expenses from year to year, but solar power guarantees a predictable monthly utility bill. Stability in terms of energy pricing gives cash-strapped districts the confidence they need to invest in providing the best possible education for their students.

Educational Opportunities Associated With the Use of Solar Energy

Although the cost savings is often what spurs administrators to look into the use of solar energy, schools are finding that systems provide a unique educational opportunity for students. It's well known that students in the United States perform below the academic standards of other developed countries. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that US students have particular difficulty translating real life situations into mathematical terms and interpreting the mathematical aspects of real world problems.

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Since solar panels are a highly visible addition to a school, they provide an ideal starting point for showing students how their studies apply to everyday life. Here are some general examples of how solar energy systems can be incorporated into classroom lessons for students of all ages:

  • Students can use system performance data to calculate how much electricity is being produced and how much money their school is saving.
  • Problem solving skills can be developed by investigating questions such as how system tilt angles and orientation affect energy output.
  • Research projects can explore topics such as the physics of solar energy as compared to traditional sources of energy.
  • Students can take what they've learned about solar energy to conduct an energy audit of a local nonprofit organization, using their school's performance data to make cost-saving recommendations for the nonprofit.

SunPower, a leader in global solar innovation since 1985, also offers the SunPower Horizons program to provide opportunities for students in grades K-12 as well as select post-secondary STEM majors. The Horizons program includes SunPower panel donations for classroom use, mentors and guest instructors from SunPower, and professionally developed lesson plans covering various topics relating to solar power and energy efficiency. Schools may also choose to take advantage of field based opportunities such as internships and service learning, as well as professional development opportunities for educators.

In addition to enhancing education, solar panels in schools may motivate students to explore a new career field they otherwise wouldn't have considered. The term "green collar jobs" refers to positions that specialize in using environmentally conscious design and technology to improve sustainability and promote conservation of our planet's natural resources.

The Solar Energy Industries Association states that surging demand for solar power will add hundreds of thousands of green collar jobs in areas such as research, development, construction, manufacturing, marketing and sales. Schools that implement solar power lessons into their curriculum give students an edge when they decide to pursue these types of career opportunities.

Modeling Environmental Stewardship for Students

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that electricity is responsible for more than 1/3 of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. While recycling, carpooling and avoiding the use of disposable products are small steps in helping the environment, switching to solar power is the easiest way to make a real difference in the future of the Earth.

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ThinkProgress states that if every school in the United States took full advantage of its solar potential, we'd add 5.4 gigawatts to the country’s current solar capacity of just over 16 gigawatts. This is enough to meet the power needs of one million homes. In terms of carbon emissions reduction, it would be the same benefit as taking one million passenger vehicles off the road.

Teachers and administrators often serve as role models for students, particularly in lower income districts where students are lacking stable family support structures. Installing a solar power system demonstrates a commitment to environmental stewardship that students will seek to emulate in their own lives.

The PR Benefits of a Switch to Solar Energy

Producing your own electricity via solar energy has proven to provide excellent public relations benefits for schools and private businesses alike. There's a growing interest among the general public in becoming personally involved in saving the planet. A school that uses solar power will be a source of pride for students, parents and community members.

In a report on the growing popularity of solar systems in Arizona schools, 91.5 KJZZ highlighted Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale. This facility uses covered parking with solar panels to generate about 1/5 of its power needs. Administrators report that students are just as excited about being a "green" school as they are about having covered parking for their vehicles when the temperatures rise. Madison No. 1 Middle School in Central Phoenix has seen similar positive buzz from its solar panels, with a panel-shaded courtyard turning into a place that students actually want to hang out.

Using Solar Power to Improve Emergency Response

An often overlooked benefit of solar power is the ability to generate power when emergency conditions prevent access to a utility grid. Having a reliable source of power in an emergency becomes crucial if a school also serves as a community evacuation center.

For example, during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Midtown Community School in Bayonne, New Jersey used its solar power system to keep residents safe. Their solar energy system was designed to provide power to the school's emergency systems as soon as the grid went down, thus reducing the workload of diesel generator and stretching their limited fuel supply.

Paying for Solar Power Systems

Essentially, schools have two options available for financing their purchase: direct ownership or third-party ownership. To maximize potential savings, each option should fully be explored before making a final decision.

Direct ownership models give the school full control of the solar system installation. This method provides schools with immediate savings on their utility bills. Schools can pay for the purchase via fundraising, private donors or state grants and other incentives. Additionally, since the installation of solar panels qualifies as a capital improvement project, direct ownership offers a rare chance to obtain general fund savings via a capital project.

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Since schools do not pay taxes, they are not eligible for the significant tax credits associated with solar system installation. These credits can reduce the cost of system up to 50%. Direct ownership of solar panels can also be difficult to manage for schools without large cash reserves or strong community support for the project.

Third-party ownership of the system involves the installation being owned or operated by another entity. The school pays the owner for the electricity produced by the panels, often paying a lower rate than their current utility prices. Schools can enter into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with a national company or have the community form a third-party entity to own the system on behalf of the school. A community-owned PPA lets interested parties earn a modest return on their investment while taking full advantage of the available tax incentives.

Third-party ownership is perfect for schools that can't afford the up-front investment in the panels, but even schools with no budgetary issues often find this option appealing due to the tax credits involved. Sidwell Friends, the private school in Washington, D.C. where President Barack Obama’s daughters attend, used a community-owned PPA for its solar system installation.

Types of Solar Solutions for Schools

Depending on the nature of your facility, school administrators who are interested in using renewable energy in their facilities have multiple solar power options to consider. For example:

  • Roof-Mount Solar Installation. This is the most common option schools select due to the ease of mounting panels on a flat roof. These panels are also economical and require minimal maintenance.
  • Parking Lot Solar Canopy. Another popular choice for schools, this solar panel method maximizes energy production while giving staff and students convenient covered parking spaces.
  • Pole-Mount Solar Installation. Most often used in situations where a facility doesn't have enough available roof space or roof-mount panels are impractical, pole-mount solar panels maximize exposure to sunlight. However, they do require a large spot of open land.
  • Ground-Mount Solar Installation. A facility with large areas of open land that receive heavy sun exposure for the majority of the day might choose ground mount panels. These panels can potentially generate more power than an exclusively roof mounted system, especially if they include an optional tracker system designed to maximize energy generation throughout the day.
  • Building-Integrated PV Systems. A school planning to remodel or expand may choose to use building-integrated PV systems to enjoy the benefits of solar power in an unobtrusive way.
  • Solar Shade Awnings. If your facility has awnings in areas with high sunlight exposure, panels can be added to generate solar power.
  • Solar Shelter Installation. Bus barns and other detached facilities can generate solar power, if necessary. This option offers all the benefits of roof-mounted panels without requiring a modification of the primary classroom area.
  • Solar Shelter Installation. An alternative source of solar power, these shelters affordably produce energy while offering a covered space for playgrounds, athletic facilities and other outdoor campus spaces.

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Since a solar power system relies on sunlight, it produces less energy during the evening hours and on cloudy days. For this reason, most schools remain connected to a utility grid so they can draw backup power as needed to prevent any interruption of service.

If the solar panel system generates any excess power, this remaining energy is sold back to the grid and is used to power other businesses or homes within the area. The school receives a credit on its utility bill as compensation.

SunPower Solar Systems

Empire Renewable Energy specializes in providing SunPower solar solutions to both commercial and residential clients throughout the Southwest. SunPower is a leader in the solar power industry, having produced enough solar cells over the last 30 years to circle the Earth three times. The company holds over 500 patents, focusing continually on creating innovative ways to make renewable energy more accessible to the public.

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SunPower solar cells convert more sunlight to electricity than any other solar technology and offer superior performance in low light conditions. This high-efficiency process means consumers need fewer panels and less roof space to meet their power needs. With SunPower, even small schools can reduce their electric bill.

With any solar power system, durability is a primary concern. SunPower systems are rated #1 in durability in third-party testing, with assurances that they can withstand hail, extreme temperatures and hurricane force winds. Each SunPower panel also comes with a 25-year combined power and product warranty, letting you purchase with complete confidence.

Get a Free Site Assessment and Benefits Analysis

With so many factors to consider, choosing the most effective type of solar power configuration can seem complicated. Fortunately, Empire Renewable Energy employs a team of expert engineers who can perform a free comprehensive site assessment and benefits analysis to find the best system for any educational facility. This includes power and allocation recommendations as well as a projected annual utility savings, a projected payback period and the net cost of the system.

Our engineering team specializes in solving the complex logistical challenges that often prevent the greater adoption of renewable energy in schools. Even a small solar installation can provide tangible financial benefits. To see a detailed analysis that clearly outlines your path to profitability. Call us today to learn more about how solar power systems can benefit your school.

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