Focus                                                          Page 12-13


Going Solar Atop School



Jing Tian

In 2012, The tiny Centerburg School District in central Ohio installed 5,600 solar panels on the rooftops and grounds of its elementary and high schools that are anticipated to provide 80 percent of the electricity the two buildings will use over the 2013-14 school year.

The 1.5-megawatt solar system will save the 1,140-student school district approximately $50,000 in electricity costs in just the first year of the project.

Centerburg is not alone in turning to solar energy generation. More and more K-12 schools are turning to renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, to power up their facilities. Solar is an attractive option for schools for several reasons:

The price of solar panels and installation has dropped. The latest GTM Research/Solar Energy Industries Association report found that the price of solar panels has declined by nearly 65 percent in the past two years. The lower cost of the panels greatly improves the economics of going solar, especially in terms of the project’s rate of return.

New financing options make it possible to go solar without paying for the system up front. A few years ago, the Centerburg schools’ solar panel system likely would have required a large up-front investment because few financial institutions or companies at the time were willing to provide capital support for systems this size.

Now, rather than pay for the cost of the system up front, school districts can enter into a power purchase agreement, or PPA, a financing relationship in which a third party owns the panels and sells the power generated back to the property owner (in this case, a school or school district) at a locked-in rate over a set amount of time, often 10, 15 or 20 years. The locked-in rates usually are lower than the utility bill the school previously paid. The process creates immediate savings that continue through the life of the lease.

The third parties in these scenarios are companies called solar service providers. They act as one-stop shops for arranging the financing, construction and lifetime maintenance of the solar system. Power purchase agreement providers and solar installers consider school districts to be attractive partners because unlike commercial businesses, schools are more likely to stay in the same buildings throughout the life of the agreement.

These partnerships provide strong support to ensure project success. Bringing in a PPA provider or manufacturer with PPA and installation partnerships saves school districts from having to implement the project alone.

The Antelope Valley Union High School District in Lancaster, Calif., which faced major budgetary issues that led to the closing of several schools, installed 9.6 megawatts of solar power on more than 10 school sites in 2010 to provide 80 percent of the district’s electricity needs, saving an estimated $2 million per year.

Because the PPA provider took responsibility for every stage of construction, the school district did not have to expend its limited budget or staff to ensure the success of the project. The PPA provider found companies to install and engineer the systems that were built on the 10 schools.

PPA providers also are responsible for selecting the technology and components that go into a solar panel system. This is important, as the quality and durability of panels and other system components can vary widely. The PPA provider also provides system maintenance throughout the life of the contract.

The benefits of these solar systems extend beyond dollars and cents. Installing solar systems turns education facilities into real-world classrooms where students can see firsthand the use of 21st-century energy technology. Schools that go solar can develop curricula about renewable energy to help students prepare for jobs in this field.

In Rockford, Ill., the Allegro Academy, a nonpublic school, uses its website (http://allegroacademy.org) to enable students and community members to see how much energy the school’s five-panel system has produced, how many houses that energy could power and the system’s carbon offset. Allegro’s teachers use the data to educate their students about energy production and usage.

Nonprofit groups, such as the National Energy Education Development Project, have developed guides for solar energy lessons in K-12 education, including modules that teach students to measure solar panel efficiency and predict solar panel performance.

Today, an increasing number of education facilities are turning to solar to save money while taking care of the environment around them. With new lower panel costs, innovative financing programs and higher-performing panels, solar power is a true money-saving solution for schools.

Jing Tian is director of product marketing at Trina Solar Americas in San Jose, Calif. E-mail: jing.tian@trinasolar.com


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