Solar Schools: Challenge Accepted

At NRDC, we had this idea that community action could help put solar on K-12 schools--the very same schools our nation's kids are attending now, the schools that are, as one of our organizers put it, "fundamentally an experience of a community investing in its future." This fall and winter, we decided to test that idea out, in the great state of North Carolina. (Support came largely from our successful crowdfunding campaign in the fall of 2013.)

North Carolina might not seem, at first glance, like a likely place to start. North Carolina is not, after all, one of those six or seven states with good solar policies and high electric prices, where solar is being installed on local K-12 schools like gangbusters. Not only that, but it's one of only five states in the nation that specifically prohibits the most common strategy schools use in obtaining solar: power purchase agreements (PPAs) that allow private developers to build and own solar power systems on schools (and other premises) and then sell the electricity back to the user at a discounted rate. Then, you should add this fact: North Carolina has some of the cheapest electricity in the country, with residential rates coming in at almost two cents a kilowatt hour below the national average. (The average North Carolina kilowatt-hour this November cost 10.65 cents compared to 12.46 cents for the nation as a whole.) Even in the Southeast, where coal-generated electricity is still, unfortunately, king, North Carolina's electric prices are well below the regional average of 11.61 cents.

Needless to say, the issues getting in the way of solar at North Carolina schools are often financial ones. "School districts don't have spare money sitting around to develop solar," explains Frank Marshall, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at Asheville-based solar developer FLS Energy. Indeed, short on cash, school districts across the state have cut teachers' salaries each year for the last four years running.

All of which meant that perhaps the Tar Heel State was actually the perfect place to test out our theories and our tools, after all. (You can cue Frank Sinatra singing, "If you can make it here, you'll make it anywhere." Even though he's referring to another place in another context, it seems sort of appropriate, no?)

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Western North Carolina was where we headed, to the city of Asheville and surrounding Buncombe Country--not for the barbeque, though it's excellent--but because the county school district is already a leader on energy efficiency. "Asheville's interesting," says Jon Stover, Director of Blue Ridge Tech Ventures, a local start-up incubator that focuses partially on clean technology. "The city is a very progressive city." Indeed, one reason NRDC chose Asheville was the highly successful Solarize collective solar purchasing campaign residents ran in 2013. "But as you move out from the city, it's Appalachia. It's a mountain culture." Solar can appeal to both, for different reasons, he says.

Luckily, the schools--not just the public ones but private and charter schools, too--welcomed us. And with good reason: Solar can help schools achieve their goals. To begin with, the technology gets kids super-excited about learning. Science and math, of course, benefit from solar's electrifying touch. But we're also talking here about reading, writing, eating kale chips baked in a solar oven. (You know the zing is real if kids eat leafy green vegetables willingly.) "Anything that is a solution or an innovation, something they see as new technology gets them excited," explains Allison McDevitt, who teaches technology at North Buncombe Middle School. "When they think they're doing something powerful, that gets them excited, too."

And there's more. Thanks to plummeting solar prices, even in states with low electric rates like North Carolina, solar can save schools serious money on energy. (That's their second-largest expense, after payroll.) In fact, across the country, heartwarming stories abound of schools saving teaching positions and restoring cuts to programs like music and art using the savings gained from solar energy.

Here's another thing: Solar can help overburdened teachers and administrators meet an ever-increasing set of curriculum standards. And, finally, solar and the organizing campaigns that promote it can help schools model and teach civic engagement and environmental stewardship--two things we need now more than ever.

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Our plan in North Carolina wasn't so much to develop a plan for each school but to create a pretty open-ended challenge--a contest, really, which we called the Buncombe County Solar Schools Challenge--that would encourage schools and their communities to mobilize around solar. (We figured going from zero to commercial-scale solar installations in one fell swoop was probably too steep an ask, especially on the first go-round. So, in the first phase of our effort, we wanted to see if we could simply help school communities create the building blocks for future action.)

We thought that letting school communities decide, on their own, how to meet the challenge could create a sense of ownership and initiative and could lead to creative, really homegrown approaches. Just to sweeten the pot, prizes included demonstration-sized (400 watt) solar arrays that schools could use as teaching tools, thanks to our generous friends at FLS Solar. Explains Haiz Oppenheimer of NC Green Schools, our partner on the ground in North Carolina, "we hoped to leverage a lot of really creative, grassroots action for solar with a very minimal touch."

Toward that end, we sent out the message to all the K-12 schools in the county, either directly, or through the media, and invited them to sign up. (Special thanks are due here to Buncombe County Schools' Energy Coordinator Seth McLamb, science specialist Brian Maccarelli and STEM coach Karla Billups, who reached out to teachers and administrators on our behalf.) Of the 70 or so elementary, middle and high schools in the county, 18 signed up--a pretty good number, considering the short notice and the fact that many schools use the spring rather than the fall to focus on energy issues in their curricula.

Once we got the schools signed up, we asked each one to achieve four things:

  1. Create a Challenge Team: That is, get a group together--a leadership team to head up the effort in each school. (As it played out, "teachers tended to be the largest driving force here," Oppenheimer says. "But the schools that succeeded the most really involved students in this.")
  2. Build Community Support for Exploring Solar: Challenge teams were charged with recruiting supporters--parents, students, teachers, community members. At a minimum, they needed to sign up 10 supporters for every 100 students at their school.
  3. Raise the Profile of Solar at School: The key effort here was to hold an "energy day" event at each participating school. If Challenge teams wanted to do more to promote solar in their own ways, all the better.
  4. Conduct a Simple Solar Assessment: Using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's PVWatts online solar calculator, teams were supposed to calculate the solar capacity of their school buildings and grounds. In other words, to figure out the amount of pollution-free power they could generate on-site.

How well did the challenge work out?

For the most part, very, very well.

In fact, the project turned out to offer an embarrassment of previously unimagined riches. Says Oppenheimer, "In organizing, you as the organizer are often trying to come up with new, exciting ideas to get people involved. With the Solar Schools Challenge, this flipped: We gave people a small incentive"--the possibility of those demonstration-scale solar installations--"and a provocative challenge, and they came up with lots of exciting ideas."

Let's step back for a minute, though. We did do a few things to help nudge this challenge toward success. One was to make sure that much of this work could help teachers and administrators meet North Carolina curriculum standards and their own educational objectives. "What I initially heard from a lot of teachers was they had too much going on right now," says Maccarelli, the county science specialist. Indeed, as these things go, teachers are increasingly overburdened. Maccarelli continues: "I pointed out how doing stuff with solar matches up with 5th grade standards, 8th grade standards, and earth science in high school." In 8th grade, there's a whole unit on renewable and non-renewable energy. "Fifth grade has more about heat transfer--less about generating electricity and more about passive solar," he says. "If the teachers could see that, they were more apt to pick this thing up and run with it."

Says Dr. Gordon Grant, principal of the Hall Fletcher Elementary School in Asheville, "one thing I really liked about the challenge was the cross-grade level integration." In his school, where 72 percent of the kids get free or reduced-cost lunches, science teachers arranged for some cool 9th graders from the high school to come and talk to the 4th graders about energy conservation, solar power, and climate change. "To a 4th grader, a 9th grader is an enlightened being," Dr. Grant notes. So when the earnest and zealous 9th graders came for their assembly, they "spread their zeal to the 4th graders," who then went on to teach the 2nd graders in their own school. The project--which included the aforementioned baking of kale chips in solar ovens during a family fall festival event, and the building of toy solar-powered cars, along with a few assemblies, documentary screenings, and a solar-related art display--helped create a shared experience that united the diverse school community.

That's not to say there weren't challenges to the, um, Challenge. One was working with kids who were of vastly different ages. What 1st graders can learn and get excited about is different from what 11th graders will get involved in. But the teachers connected to the Challenge were resourceful. At Weaverville Primary Elementary School, a pre-K-1st grade school, for instance, 1st grade teacher Dorothy Knight used a classic trick employed by caretakers of 6 year-olds everywhere. "There isn't a 6 year-old in the world who doesn't like dinosaurs," says Knight. "So I decided to talk about fossil fuels first. We talked about how dinosaurs became part of the fossil fuel supply and that was running out." The class built a solar heater, using 2 x 4s, some plexi-glass, and a dryer vent painted black, modeled on one they saw on a YouTube video. When I came to their class six weeks ago, they told me all about it. And how, if they wore black t-shirts in the summer, they're going to get too hot. "That was the level at which they could understand solar energy," Knight says. "And I was very, very proud of them."

The 11th graders, of course, did projects that were much more complex. And, really, their creativity and mastery of social media was impressive. A bunch of the teams started Facebook pages and Instagram and Twitter accounts. Asheville High assembled a solar selfie collage online that collected 300 photos of kids' taken next to solar panels at various sites in and around Buncombe County. Students and their teachers made videos and news reports about solar power. There were solar rap battles, where kids tried to best each other using clean-energy rhymes. Students designed and compiled online energy surveys. There were solar vocabulary contests. And Air Quality IQ posters. Some of the younger kids sent letters to President Obama about clean energy and fossil fuels.

Others wrote poems. Some dressed up in yellow and orange to show their support for the clean power of the sun. Then they listened to speakers, like Jon Stover, and made field trips to local solar installers, including Sundance Power. Some kids calculated how much solar they could install on their homes and how much electricity they could generate. "So many kids and schools didn't just participate," says Katie Cavert Ferrell, NC Green Schools' program director. "They really took it to the next level."

If there was a place some schools tripped up--and some did; only 13 of the 18 schools who originally enrolled in the Challenge completed all four parts--it was with conducting a solar assessment of their school buildings and grounds using the PVWatts online solar calculator. The tool turned out to be more confusing and complicated than we anticipated. And while some schools and kids went wild with it, assessing their homes, local businesses and community institutions, along with their schools, others got flummoxed and gave up. In our next effort, we'll use a different approach.

Judging was really the hardest part. There were too many school teams that had done too many good things, and even though we created six winning categories, including the grand prize, a first place prize for public elementary schools, one for public middle schools, one for public high schools, one for private and charter schools, along with a special prize for student leadership, it was still very hard to choose.

Jon Stover, who served on our panel of judges, explains, "If you look at kids in a really good school that have done amazing things, and they're against a school that's not very good, but they've made the most progress and developed the most--well, it can be very tricky."

Nevertheless, we had to make decisions and here they are:

  • Grand Prize Winner (and First Prize, Public Middle Schools): North Buncombe Middle School, where teacher Allison McDevitt was the lead
  • First Prize, Public Elementary Schools: Hall Fletcher Elementary School
  • First Prize, Public High Schools: Asheville High School
  • First Prize, Private and Charter Schools: Rainbow Community School
  • Special Prize for Student Leadership: North Buncombe High School

Congratulations to the winners! And congratulations to all the participants. You showed us how a good idea can be made even better when kids and their teachers make it their own.

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People have asked us why a contest, a challenge as we called it? Contests have their downsides, after all. Groups that don't win can feel deflated and disengage from the project at hand if they don't win, even when the judges were hard-pressed to reward one team over the other, as they were was in our case.

It turns out, though, that despite those issues, contests can be great motivators. That was the case here, where the challenge helped prioritize the project in the minds of kids and teachers who have lots of demands on their time and attention. "The challenge was an effective means of getting people interested," explains Seth McLamb, the county's energy coordinator. And, it did prioritize it, proving that school communities want solar and can take many of the steps they need to get it.

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Where do we go from here now that the Challenge is done? Well, in Buncombe County, we go bigger. In the next phase, we'll work with many of these same Challenge teams to see if they can help make the case for commercial-scale solar installations at as many Buncombe County schools as possible. We will invite the school teams to prepare videos explaining, realistically, how their schools can go solar. The teams' videos can examine either the technical process--how and where they can install solar on-site, obtain financing and connect to the grid--or, they can explore the advantages of solar--again, explaining how the school and the community will benefit from the pollution-free technology.

Why all this effort? In states where the case for solar at schools is more difficult to make than it is in California, Hawaii, New Jersey or Massachusetts, and places where solar project developers are put off by the cumbersome process of working with school districts, we want to create opportunities for communities to explore whether and how solar can best work for them. We want cultivate local talent and enthusiasm, to get broad, stakeholder buy-in, and help kids and teachers, parents and community members lead. With any luck, Phase II of this Challenge will help Buncombe County's kids and teachers put together an actual project proposal to bring solar to as many schools as possible. Our goal is to work with decision-makers toward put together a real proposal and move to an RFP.

We're not stopping there, though.

Starting in September, we'll work with schools in Rowan and Watauga counties on similar challenges. If you're part of another North Carolina school community and want to join, give us a holler, at [email protected].

About the Authors

Jay Orfield

Renewable Energy Analyst, Energy & Transportation program

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