Made in the shade: Why new energy is building up behind school solar panels

Solar panels conserve energy, save money and provide new learning opportunities, K-12 leaders say.

The case for school solar panels is one that can appeal to all community members, despite their varying political views and interests.

At Robbinsville Public Schools, New Jersey, newly installed solar canopies at the high school and middle school are conserving energy, providing new learning opportunities and saving money, Superintendent Brian Betze says. “The education and environmental benefits are really powerful,” Betze says. “Sending both messages out to the community helped us sell it—and we’re saving tax dollars.”

The solar kiosk on Robbinsville schools’ website allows students, educators and community members to track energy generated and other environmental benefits. The kiosk measures the number of trees saved and the level of carbon emissions that are being offset.

There were no upfront costs because the panels were installed by an outside company that is selling energy back to the district at a deeply discounted rate that will save about $100,000 to $150,000 annually. After 15 years, the district can buy back the panels or remove and replace them.

Betze says the panels also came with aesthetic benefits and other seasonal conveniences. “They look great—they have a really cool, Star Trek-y look to them,” he says. “And when it was 90 degrees this summer, we had staff and student parking under the canopies saying thank you for cooling off their cars.”

Robbinsville Public Schools' online "kiosk" tracks its use of solar energy.
Robbinsville Public Schools’ online “kiosk” tracks its use of solar energy.

Not just for wealthier districts

The amount of solar power being utilized at K-12 schools has tripled since 2015. Overall, about one in 10 schools now use solar energy, says Tish Tablan, director of Solar for All Schools at Generation180, a clean energy nonprofit. Energy is generally the second biggest expense after staffing in most school districts, she adds.

Most of those installations are financed and owned by a third party, which means there are no upfront costs and schools get discounts on energy rates that can be set for decades. “Our data shows that solar is not just a technology for wealthy school districts—rural to urban to underresourced, they’re going solar,” Tablan explains. “Nearly half of all public schools with solar are eligible for Title I.”

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Many of the districts incorporate their solar energy systems into instruction, particularly in career and technical education. Tuscon USD in Arizona built solar canopies over school gardens to introduce students to the field of agrivoltaics to research how various plants grow in the shade of solar panels.

“If all K-12 schools in the US were completely powered with clean energy, that would reduce carbon emissions equal to closing 16 coal-fired power plants,” Tablan says.

School solar panels in the shade

Shade for basketball games and free car charging are among the many big benefits of newly installed solar panels at the Los Gatos Union School District near San Jose, California. The district has nearly finished installing solar arrays on and around all five of its buildings, Superintendent Paul Johnson says.

The panels, which cost the district nothing up front, are owned and maintained by a private company that will charge the school system a fixed, below-market electricity rate over a 20-year contract. The solar arrays will generate enough energy to power 250 homes annually and save the small district about $3.6 million in funding that can be redirected to teaching and learning. “If more schools could participate in something like this, just imagine how it would help our environment on a massive scale,” Johnson says. “We have five schools and it’s all of those homes. There could literally be thousands of homes worth of energy provided.”

One of the solar arrays was built over a blacktop area where students play basketball and hold a bike rodeo, all in the shade. Other canopies cover parking areas, and the energy generated allows teachers and other staff to charge electric cars for free. Students also have access to data that will allow them to track energy and cost savings for STEM assignments. The district’s use of clean power is roughly equivalent to taking 275 gas-powered passenger vehicles off the road each year, Johnson says.

And when California’s recent record-setting heat wave sent temperatures soaring to an unheard of 111 degrees in the Los Gatos, the solar panels were able to keep the district’s air-conditioning units cooling classrooms at full strength.

Setting your long-term energy strategy

Some district leaders are incorporating solar power into the HVAC upgrades they are making in the wake of COVID’s heightened air quality concerns. Hotter weather across the country is also driving a growing number of districts to use American Rescue Plan relief funds to install air-conditioning.

Money saved on renewable energy can leave districts with more funds for ventilation and other infrastructure improvements, says Jordan Lerner, a West Coast regional director at Schneider Electric. “Districts are now using their schools for longer periods of time and in different ways,” Lerner explains. “We’re definitely seeing communities that didn’t feel like they needed AC looking at portions of their buildings where they now want it.”

Federal renewable energy tax credits have recently been extended to public and tax-exempt agencies, which means there is more funding than ever before to install and own solar power systems. School administrators, with outside help, should make comprehensive energy and HVC plans rather than taking on projects one at a time, he recommends. “The places that have seen success are doing it in an intentional, phased approach, where the most pressing needs are handled first and equity is provided across districts,” Lerner says.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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