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Sun-Powered Schools

America’s K-12 Schools are learning about the advantages of solar.

Across the nation, both public and private schools are installing solar panels. For schools with tight budgets, solar is making economic sense, while also providing a unique learning tool. Power-purchase agreements and other financing options are keeping up-front costs low, and imaginative installations are providing new and different ways of maximizing the benefits the school receives.

The Solar Foundation (the research partner of the Solar Energy Industry Association) released a report in 2014 entitled Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools. Their report included these findings:

  1. In 2014, there were 3,752 K-12 schools with solar installations, meaning nearly 2.7 million students attend schools with solar energy systems.

  2. The 3,727 PV systems have a combined capacity of 490 megawatts (MW), and generate roughly 642,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity each year, equivalent to $77.8 million worth of utility bills and enough clean, renewable energy to offset 50 million gallons of gasoline.

  3. Solar potential remains largely untapped. Of the 125,000 K-12 schools in the country, up to 72,000 schools (60%) can “go solar” cost-effectively. Approximately 450 individual schools districts have the potential to save more than $1 million over 30 years by installing a solar PV system.

Stories of new solar school projects are popping up in the news every day, and we would love to see the Solar Foundation release an updated report on solar schools in the US. In the meantime, Solar Tribune offers a showcase of just a handful of the schools who are putting the sun to work for their students in 2017.

Granada High School: Livermore CA

Granada High School in Livermore California will soon be flipping the switch on a solar array that is the first of twelve solar projects slated for the school system. When completed, the twelve arrays are expected to save the school system $16 million in electricity bills over the next 20 years.

Deputy Superintendent Chris VanSchaack told the East Bay Times that the solar panels will not only be providing power to their facilities, but they will act as shade structures over playgrounds and parking areas. “That’s one of the things we’ve been working on over the last several years is just providing more shade,” VanSchaack said. The extra shade will keep cars cooler in parking lots and provide sun cover over playgrounds at the elementary and middle schools.

Solar panels are under construction at Granada High School. (Photo by Nora Heston Tarte)

Rochester Schools: Rochester, New Hampshire

Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based solar installation company SunRaise has been working with the Rochester school system since 2015, when they installed an 86-kilowatt array at East Rochester Elementary School. Since then, four more solar projects have been installed on the rooftops of Spaulding High School, Richard W. Creteau Technical Center, McClelland Elementary School, and Rochester Middle School.

Bobby Lambert, SunRaise co-founder and vice president of finance, told that since his company owns the arrays and sells the power to the schools,  the department is benefiting from a per kWh price that is lower than retail market cost with an annual escalation of 2 percent through its power purchase agreement and a 20-year contract.

“We finance the system and own it, with no money down, and then sell them the power generated at a discounted rate,” Lambert said.


Valley Elementary School, Bath County, Virginia

Valley Elementary School is now home to Virginia’s largest school solar array and is the first school in the state to go 100% solar.  The project came together, in part, because of BARC Electric, who arranged to get the system in with no upfront costs to the school.

Governor @TerryMcAuliffe says renewable energy is what got @Facebook to come to Virginia @ABC13News — Annie Andersen (@Annie_Andersen) October 25, 2017

“BARC has partnered with us now, and increasingly more and more and larger ways,” says Bath County School Superintendent Sue Hirsh. “So it’s nice to be able them a partner in what we’re accomplishing and what they’re accomplishing.”

Superintendent Hirsh isn’t the only public official in the state who sees the potential of solar energy. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is also a big fan of renewable energy and has spoken glowingly of the possibilities of job growth through education about solar and training in the solar field.

“I have thousands and thousands of jobs open today in Virginia in the renewable energy space, So if we can start our children at a young age, beginning in the kindergarten and up, through 12, thinking about renewable energy and getting them interested in it – because we have plenty of jobs.”

Queens Creek Elementary, Swansboro, North Carolina

It’s not only school administrators and public officials who think that solar energy is good for schools. In Onslo County North Carolina, a group of forward-thinking elementary school students was the driving force behind the solar installation at Queens Creek Elementary School’s “Green Dream.” A team of eleven fourth and fifth graders launched the initiative, and some of them, now in high school, returned recently to see the fruit of their labor.

Swansboro High School students Erica Miller and Christian Davis photo:

“One day they came to me with an idea, a grand idea, not to save the world but to make our corner of the beautiful state a better place,” Queens Creek Principal Elain Justice said as she introduced the students.

A recent ribbon-cutting ceremony was held by the school in conjunction with NC GreenPower and other project partners.  Queens Creek is the eighth solar PV system as part of the NC GreenPower pilot Solar Schools Program started in 2015.

Paloma Elementary School, San Marcos, California

Elon Musk’s Tesla is getting into all aspects of solar and energy storage, and schools in San Marcos California will soon be the latest project for the alternative energy giant.

Tesla installers at work photo:

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Tesla will install, operate and maintain the equipment, and the district will purchase power at reduced rates, saving an estimated $30 million over the 20-year contract.

According to Mark Schiel, assistant superintendent of business services, in addition to stretching its budget, the panels will provide shade, reduce the district’s carbon footprint and potentially provide instructional material and data for classroom lessons on alternative energy.

“You’re pulling yourself off the grid, and reducing your footprint on the electricity grid, and converting the sun that’s already coming down into a viable energy source,” Schiel said. “While they produce solar for the district, they produce shade. We’re able to put carports in our parking lots. It’s creating shade structures that students can play under, study under, or eat lunch under.”

Good Counsel Learning Center, Mankato, Minnesota

Unlike the other schools in this article, this school is not in the sunny and warm south or west, but way up North in Minnesota, The School Sisters of Notre Dame operate the Good Counsel Learning Center near Mankato, where they tutor K-12 students. And adults in subjects ranging from reading or math to study for the citizenship exam.


The nuns are preparing to install a large project on their campus, but they are not solar newbies. They had panels installed on their health care facility in 2014. Next, they agreed to host a 907-kilowatt photovoltaic array on former farmland on the campus that went online in the fall of 2015.

Two years later, Innovative Power Systems of Roseville is beginning construction on a 1.3-megawatt solar array with roughly 40,000 solar panels capable of creating enough energy to power 165 average Minnesota homes.

“To be able to collaborate with others is a great gift,” said Sr. Mary Kay Gosch, campus administrator of the provincial headquarters on Good Counsel hill. During a ground-breaking ceremony Wednesday, Gosch said the nuns feel a moral obligation to support non-polluting sources of energy. “We all take seriously the words of good old Pope Francis, who said all of us ‘have the responsibility to hear the cry of the earth,'” she said.


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