In this last of a two-part series, Edison Energy sat down with Tish Tablan, Program Director at Generation180, to discuss the growing solar-on-schools movement and the push for solar-friendly policies across the nation. Click here to read the first part in the series.
The benefits of solar power are catching on in school districts across the nation as a way to reduce energy costs, lower carbon emissions, and provide students with hands-on learning and job training.
Schools are now installing greater solar capacity, with solar production up 81 percent over five years ago, according to the Brighter Future Report published by Generation180, a Virginia-based nonprofit working to help drive the clean energy transition.
But with schools having to juggle more with fewer dollars against the backdrop of the ongoing Covid crisis, engaging districts on the benefits of clean energy has been a challenge. But Generation180 is flipping the script, says Tish Tablan, Program Director at Generation180.
“Energy is typically the second largest expense for schools after staffing,” she said. “Going solar can help cash-strapped school districts redirect the funds used to pay utility bills towards the core mission of student learning.”
The proof is in the pudding. In 2017, the Batesville School District in Arkansas was underfunded by $250,000 and paid the lowest teacher salaries out of the five districts in the county. Because of this, the school was losing great teachers. After an initial energy audit showed that the district was paying over $600,000 annually in utilities, it sought to cut energy and water costs to eliminate the budget deficit instead of shuttering schools or laying off teachers.
The district, which is situated in the backyard of the largest coal-fired power plant in the state, partnered with an energy services company to install 759 kW of solar on two campuses, along with upgrades in lighting and energy and water efficiency.
Now the largest solar installation in any school district in Arkansas, Batesville’s 1,483 solar panels generate about half of the district’s electricity needs and provide savings of nearly $100,000 per year. The teachers were also asked to contribute to the savings by conserving energy in the buildings. In exchange, they would receive pay raises.
The district has reduced its energy consumption by 1.6 million kWh per year and expects a net savings of over $4 million over 20 years from solar energy generation, energy conservation and water efficiency upgrades. A portion of the energy savings is going back to the teachers as pay raises of up to $9,000 per year. The district also went from a $250,000 budget deficit to a $1.8 million surplus within three years and now ranks first in teacher pay out of the five districts in the county.
Neighboring school districts have taken notice. Twenty school districts surrounding Batesville have expressed an interest in going solar, while the Batesville School District is already planning its next solar project, aiming to be the first net-zero energy school district in the state.
Thanks to newly passed legislation that expanded the solar energy system size allowed per customer and enabled third-party ownership, Batesville School District plans to add 757 kW of solar at an offsite location with no upfront or ongoing maintenance costs.
These kinds of solar-friendly policies are key to making solar affordable for schools, says Tablan.
“The biggest barrier to solar on schools is funding,” she said. “We are working on educating school districts on how to make solar projects happen and changing state and utility policies to increase access to solar. Our research found that 79 percent of the solar capacity installed on schools nationwide was funded by a third party, and the district did not have to find the funds in their budget to pay for the project.”
A typical arrangement is a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), in which the solar developer pays for the installation and maintenance of the solar array and the customer purchases the energy produced by the array. Usually, districts will pay for solar energy at a rate lower than the utility rate, benefiting from immediate energy savings with no upfront costs.
However, not every school district has access to these much-needed funding options.
“Third-party PPAs are currently only available in 29 states plus DC,” Tablan said. “This is an issue of equity when school districts in close to half the states in the country don’t have access to the financing they need to make solar projects happen.”
States with high penetrations of solar in the nonresidential sector, which includes commercial, industrial, government and nonprofit customers, rank at the top when it comes to solar schools. Not surprisingly, these rates are linked to favorable government and utility solar policies and incentives and third-party financing options, according to the report.
California and New Jersey have remained the top two states in both the number of solar schools and cumulative installed solar capacity at schools since 2014, while New York and Massachusetts have consistently ranked among the top states for solar at K-12 schools.
These states have policies that encourage clean energy adoption, such as statewide mandates, solar incentives, and access to third-party financing options. In contrast, states that consistently rank at the bottom for solar adoption by schools suffer from utility barriers, poor net metering policies, and few options for financing.
“Through our Solar for All Schools campaign, we aim to provide more equitable access to the benefits of clean energy,” Tablan said. “In Virginia, we worked with a multistakeholder coalition and successfully advocated for new state laws and utility policies that expanded access to third-party power purchase agreements. Since this financing mechanism was first enabled in the state in 2013, we have seen the amount of solar on schools grow over a hundredfold.”
Check out additional conversations with leading experts from across the industry in our Visionary Voices: Perspectives in Energy Series.
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