While it still faces formidable challenges, solar power is making inroads into regular, everyday American life. Solar panel installations can be seen everywhere, from private residences to shopping malls to office parks to convention centers, and they are starting to take significant hold at educational institutions.
Solar power is not just about cash-strapped school districts looking to save a few dollars on energy costs but also a way for them to raise money by selling renewable energy credits. For many school systems, the installation of solar panels on school buildings opens up a brand new avenue of curriculum, in renewable and clean energy education.
Take, for example, the Phoenixville, Pa., school district, comprised of six schools: four elementary school, one middle school and one high school. When the education leaders of the city were talking about soliciting bids for solar panel installations at Phoenixville Area High School, the educational opportunities were something that came up immediately.
“We knew this could be something our teachers could run with, and modify their lessons to include education about green energy,” says Stan Johnson, the executive director of business operations in Phoenixville. “At all levels of the school district, [starting] from K-12, we managed to include energy education, and it’s really gotten students interested in not only solar energy but other areas of green energy, as well.”
Johnson explains that three years ago, Phoenixville schools was approached by Reynolds Energy Services, of Harrisburg, Pa. Reynolds Energy had received a $500,000 grant to put solar panels in the Phoenixville area and wanted to work on the schools.
“The district looked at it and saw a reasonable payback in about 10 to 12 years,” Johnson says. “So [Reynolds Energy] put forth a bunch of energy-saving conservation ideas for our six schools, including motion detectors on light switches and software on computers that automatically shuts them down if there was no activity, and they went ahead and installed those measures.”
Phoenixville Area High School had solar panels installed on its roof at a cost of $1.2 million. The Phoenixville Area School District paid $700,000 of that — a hefty sum that Johnson deems a worthwhile investment.
Combined with a mild 2011-12 winter, the school district went from spending $952,000 on energy in the previous school year to $665,000 last year. It saw its electricity bills decrease by about 25 percent, and natural gas bills went down by 34 percent, while heating bills were down close to 50 percent.
Phoenixville Area School District is just one recent example of schools turning to solar energy.
In the suburb of Tenafly, N.J., the idea of adopting solar panels came up three years ago, when the district was strapped for cash. “We looked at different avenues, and this definitely was a good idea,” says Lou Mondello, the district’s business administrator. “We had to do a few things first, though, like fix our roofs to get them in shape for any kind of solar installation.”
Mondello says the district spent the past two years using its own money to fix the roofs of its six school buildings, and it now has put the solar project out for bid. It has already heard from solar companies up and down the East Coast and even from Colorado, he says. Mondello hopes an installation will be ready by March on Tenafly High School. The company that wins the bid will pay for the panel installation.
“Our teachers are all pretty excited to be able to incorporate [clean energy] into the curriculum,” Mondello says. “There are plans to really show the students, in a hands-on way, how much solar energy can help save money and help the environment, as well.”
Out west, in Porterville, Calif., the city’s school district installed solar panels on several of its facilities, and it already has realized significant costs savings. According to a local newspaper, the Porterville Recorder, in the first three months after the project went online, the Porterville Unified School District did not have any energy bills to pay. Porterville High School’s energy bills from February to July 2012 totaled around $42,000, compared to more than $141,000 for the same period in 2011. At Granite Hills High School (in the same district), its energy bills during the same period decreased from more than $115,000 to about $38,000.
The photovoltaic systems, which have been generating electricity at six schools since last year, save the district more than $1 million annually and are expected to help it gain between $5 million and $7 million in savings over the next five years, according to the Recorder.
The paper noted that the solar project has been bringing in money for the district, as well. Ken Gibbs, assistant superintendent of business services, was quoted as saying the school district has received $700,000 in rebates so far and should get close to $9 million in total. The entire project cost $23 million to complete.
A School District Expected More, Though
There is, however, evidence that for some school districts, solar panels have not been the best idea economically. One near Tenafly, the Leonia Board of Education, has not experienced the kinds of savings and value it expected.
Julia Perez, the business administrator for the Leonia Board of Education, tells me that the prior administration approved the solar panels and had them installed on three schools: Anna C. Scott Elementary School, Leonia Middle School and Leonia High School.
“The panels are there for us, but we don’t have the kind of panels that are generating enough energy for us to be self-sustaining,” Perez says. “We’re not really using the panels the way we thought we could.”
Perez adds that the Leonia Board of Education, like Tenafly Public Schools, is selling SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) from the panels to a local utility, which is helping it raise revenue — but, again, still not as much as expected. A website devoted to tracking the energy savings the solar panels are yielding shows they have saved the school district approximately $53,000 in two years, while sales of SRECs have brought in $123,920.
The impact of solar panels can’t be measured strictly in dollars, though. On the website, the Leonia Board of Education estimates the environmental benefit has been 7,838 trees saved, along with a carbon offset of 785,000 pounds.
Even though Perez characterized the income and solar energy generated as disappointing, it is still encouraging to see school districts — so desperately needing to maintain control of their budgets while providing quality education — turn to solar power as an avenue to cut costs and also generate revenue. As the cost of solar panels continue to come down, we can expect to see more installers offset implementation costs and make solar power more viable for schools in both rural and urban areas. And the fact that solar power happens to be environmentally friendly and an educational tool for students is immeasurably valuable.