Here Comes the Sun

NRDC’s Solar Schools Challenge is the first step toward a brighter future for U.S. students and teachers.

Credit: Radius Images / Alamy Stock Photo

When Jon Carson, a former Obama campaign strategist turned solar power evangelist, addressed a roomful of green CEOs in 2013, he threw out an offhand suggestion that sparked a revolution. “He said something like ‘You guys do great stuff, but you suck at organizing and getting real people behind your issues. We need to do something people can understand, like solar in schools,’” recalls NRDC renewable energy analyst Jay Orfield.

Inspired, Orfield and his colleagues started brainstorming. In the fall of 2013, after a few months of research, they launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a solar schools pilot project and make Carson’s spitball a reality. “Our goal was $54,000,” Orfield says. “We raised almost $60,000 in a month.”

As simple as the idea sounded, however, making it a reality was much tougher. The number one problem, of course, was money. School districts barely have enough for basic supplies these days, so getting boards and administrations to approve an investment in a large-scale solar project would be no easy feat. To push it through, Orfield and his team realized they would need to whip up a tsunami of support from students, parents, and faculty.

If they could do this successfully in a couple of school districts, they would have a solid strategy for tackling the rest of the nation.

For their initial experiment, the group targeted two areas: Alameda, California, and Asheville, North Carolina. Alameda was a no-brainer; local citizen groups had already expressed interest in making solar part of the district’s upcoming master rehabilitation plan. But Asheville was a little trickier. North Carolina is one of just a few states in the nation with rules that prevent private companies from building renewable energy systems and selling the electricity to users at a discounted rate. “That means higher up-front costs,” Orfield explains.

Every school in both areas—public, private, or charter—was invited to participate in the inaugural Solar Schools Challenge. Each started by building a team of at least one administrator, one teacher, and one parent. Those teams were then tasked with gathering enough soldiers for their individual solar revolutions: one registered supporter for every 10 students in the school. “We built an online platform to make this easy,” Orfield says. “People could sign up using their e-mail addresses or Facebook or Twitter accounts.”

In Asheville, 18 schools signed up. “We think schools in North Carolina are spending somewhere between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion in energy each year,” Orfield says. “They’ve also had to cut teachers’ salaries for the past four years. Money from energy savings could go back into the classroom, where it’s intended.” For example, when the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District in California went solar (separate from the Solar Schools project), the district realized it would save $900,000 during just the first five years, and administrators were able to reinstate a previously cut music program.

After gathering supporters, teams then had to raise the profile of solar in their schools. How do you encourage involvement and creativity? Make it a competition. (Independent judges selected winners in six categories.) “Students are capable of cool things,” Orfield says. “They submitted robotics projects powered by solar panels, art, even a rap battle.”

But students weren’t the only ones inspired by the challenge. Teachers, exasperated by constantly teaching to tests, were thrilled to work the related science, math, and engineering into their lesson plans. “I remember one e-mail from a teacher that said, ‘My class and content haven’t been alive like this in years,’” Orfield says. "It was project-based, hands-on learning, and kids got excited about it.”

Gordon Grant, principal of Asheville’s Hall Fletcher Elementary, was a big fan of the integration that happened across grade levels. “The ninth graders were talking about energy conservation, solar power, and climate change,” he remembers. “And the fourth graders took that and ran with it. They talked about sea-level rise and species loss. And the ripples kept going out from there.”

At the request of principals, Orfield and his colleagues also put together a video that linked solar power to higher education and job opportunities. “We went through the whole process, from evaluating energy efficiency to installing the panels, and interviewed all the experts involved,” Orfield says. “They said, ‘Here’s what I went to school for, and here’s what I do every day.’”

Allison McDevitt, who teaches technology at North Buncombe Middle School, near Asheville, had one student who was so inspired by solar power that he went home and told his mother he wanted to work in the field when he got older. “His mom came to me with tears in her eyes,” McDevitt remembers.

In Alameda, community residents and students also used the challenge’s online platform to boost support for solar and bring in speakers for public information sessions. And it worked. In May 2015, the school board unanimously passed full solar installation as part of the district’s rehabilitation plan.

But the key here isn’t just a win in California or more public awareness in North Carolina, Orfield says. The real success is the domino effect that’s sure to come as other schools interested in saving energy and money follow in their footsteps. “NRDC can’t always be the boots on the ground making things happen. Now one district can just call another district that's had success doing the same thing. There’s a lot of excitement around energy in schools, and now people are understanding how to actually move their ideas up the ladder. It’s a pretty significant step forward.”

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