Time for More Solar on Schools and More Solar Schools

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Hot on the announcement of New York’s new K-Solar program, (read that: K Through Solar), which offers free advice to schools interested in going solar, there’s more good news that the movement to get solar on the nation’s 125,000 K-12 schools is picking up steam. That’s the progress revealed in a new report released jointly last week by the Solar Foundation with support from the Solar Energy Industries Association. And that’s the progress we’ve seen here at NRDC, where our Solar Schools project has launched two pilot programs to test online solar-schools organizing tools, in North Carolina and in California.

Solar and schools, of course, are a great match. Solar helps schools save money on energy that they can then use towards their core mission: educating kids. Putting solar arrays on school rooftops, over school parking lots and in back fields teaches responsible citizenship and environmental stewardship while cutting carbon and other kinds of pollution, and saving water, too. And solar excites kids about science, math, technology and just about everything else in ways that few other teaching tools can.

The beauty of this match is reported in Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools. It not only provides a snapshot of where American schools are in relation to solar and a roadmap for deploying a whole lot more of the pollution-free power source, but it also provides a primer for individual schools and districts hoping to explore what solar can do for their missions and their bottom lines.

Here’s the excellent news: Already, more than 3,700 schools have gone solar—about 3 percent of the schools in the nation. As the price of solar power has dropped precipitously over the last several years, school solar arrays are moving away from the “solar on a stick” demonstration projects that were common in the early days of solar, and moving toward commercial-sized installations. In fact, 40 percent of new solar arrays installed at schools this year were 200 kilowatts or larger.

Even more good news: Between 40,000 and 72,000 of America’s K-12 schools can cost-effectively get solar and start saving money right now. That’s right—right now! Powering these 40,000-72,000 schools with solar would result in a carbon pollution savings equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road. The report even provides a link to a list of 450 currently solar-less school districts across the country that can save a $1 million or more—sometimes tens of millions of dollars—over the next 30 years by going solar, with savings in some districts of more than $300 per student.

Around the U.S., Bright Future notes, teachers are using solar to engage kids in ways few other classroom subjects can. But that doesn’t mean that going solar is always easy. Which is why Brighter Future also discusses the challenges going solar can bring to schools and districts: community engagement, financing, effective procurement, and regulatory concerns. The report’s “Appendix B: First Steps for Going Solar — A Practical Guide” is a must-have primer on how to navigate the important but sometimes complex process of connecting schools up to the sun. (The Solar Foundation now also has U.S. Department of Energy funding to consult with school districts across the country, free, on how to get solar. Schools can contact them at info@solarfound.org.)

The progress reported in Brighter Future is mirrored in our own Solar Schools experience. In August while students and teachers were starting to get ready to go back to school, we were putting the finishing touches on our platform for organizing school communities around going solar. In Buncombe County, North Carolina, which includes Asheville, more than a dozen schools have already let us know they’re excited to participate in the Solar Schools Challenge, designed to help schools go solar as we road test our online community organizing tools. (Buncombe-area schools: We’re hoping you’ll all complete the challenge!) And, for our pilot project in Alameda, California, we’re busy building out content to excite and rally their community.

Putting solar on schools is a win for everybody: for kids, whose future is increasingly protected and whose job prospects are improved as they learn about cool stuff like bouncing electrons and the invisible rays of the sun; for schools and taxpayers who can stop wasting money on energy; for everyone who cares about what kind of planet we’re leaving to our kids. 

This week’s Brighter Future report and our own Solar Schools project shows just how fast communities and their schools are embracing this clean energy technology. The more solar we deploy at schools, the more benefits will come.