Solar panels in the parking lot of a California school. Courtesy Alta Energy
Solar panels over the parking lot of a California school. Courtesy Alta Energy

By Marc Roper

When it comes to the adoption of solar power, K-12 schools across the U.S. are leading the way. While less than one percent of all U.S. homes, businesses, and government agencies rely on solar energy, the 3,700 schools around the country with solar installed represent nearly three percent of the all of K-12 schools in the country. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, that number could be as high 72,000, representing the amount of schools that could go solar cost-effectively under realistic near-term scenarios.

Solar power is a good fit for schools for a variety of reasons. First among these is that energy bills for schools are a significant financial burden. Schools in the U.S. spend about $6 billion a year on energy. For many school districts, high energy bills exceed the cost of supplies and books and are second only to salaries. On top of rising and volatile energy costs, schools are faced with serving a growing student population, aging buildings and tight operating budgets.

Installing solar can be a powerful tool for schools in managing their expenses, particularly since school districts generally own the properties on which schools are built, and school campuses tend to remain “in business” once they are established to serve the local population. This means they can plan and make investments with longer payback periods than would be typically required by many private sector businesses. Schools also tend to have good credit which makes financing of solar projects over a long term such as 20 years feasible.

The benefits of solar are particularly attractive to public schools in California. There are nearly 1,000 solar power systems installed on school campuses across the state, comprising about eight percent of California’s public K-12 campuses. The plentiful sunshine and high cost of electricity common to the state are two of the more obvious reasons why solar is a smart play for public schools in California. What’s less obvious is that schools actually pay higher costs for electricity than typical commercial customers in California because of the way these facilities consume electricity. Schools have “spikey” electricity usage patterns based on factors like class schedules and afternoon air conditioning requirements. As commercial utility customers, schools are charged each month both for their total monthly usage and for the highest peak in usage, which is presented as a fee known as a “demand charge.” In fact, schools can pay up to 50 percent more than the average commercial utility customer in California because of the way demand charges are assessed.

Fortunately, California has passed laws to encourage the use of solar energy which require utilities to offer alternative solar-friendly rates for those that install relatively small solar systems. This means schools don’t have to generate a significant amount of their power needs from solar in order to make it cost-effective. When a school right-sizes its solar energy system, the savings extend beyond just the reduction of the amount of electricity purchased from the utility. Installing even a small system can be enough to enable a school to qualify to switch to the solar-friendly rates, which have much lower pricing for the above-mentioned demand charges. And, though the new solar-friendly rate has higher average electricity prices during the summer months, this has less impact on schools which are generally closed in the summer. Schools can cut their overall cost of electricity by as much as 25 percent by making a modest solar energy investment and switching to these solar-friendly rates.

California has also instituted two key initiatives that can further enhance the savings public schools can achieve with solar. The first of these is Proposition 39, a five-year, $3 billion incentive program designed to pay for energy efficiency projects in schools. Proposition 39 funding can be used by a California school district to pay for a solar power system installation, or to make a down payment and reduce monthly payments if financed. The second is fast-track permitting offered by the Division of the State Architect.

The DSA, which regulates all construction projects on public schools in California and is committed to promoting energy efficiency and solar in schools, has instituted fast-track permitting for two different solar applications:  solar carports and solar retrofits on portable classrooms. Solar carports have proven popular with high schools and on other larger campuses with a significant amount of parking space, but can be cost prohibitive at a small scale. Retrofitting solar on portable classrooms is an especially good option for elementary and middle schools with limited parking space.

In California schools, there are an abundance of portable classrooms on which to install solar. California public school campuses are home to at least 80,000 portable classrooms, representing nearly one-third of classroom space for California’s K-12 students. Because these portable classrooms are standardized, schools can access pre-certified retrofits for solar installations on these buildings and avoid the cost and time associated with the traditional permitting process for solar on other school buildings.

Savings from the installation of solar can help reallocate funding to needs that truly impact education. Electricity generated in one year by all solar systems on K-12 schools in the U.S. represents a combined $77.8 million per year in utility bills — an average of almost $21,000 per year per school. This combined energy value is roughly equivalent to 155,000 tablet computers or nearly 2,200 new teachers’ salaries per year. Increasing energy savings translates into increased services for students. Solar on schools also provides a special opportunity to teach concepts in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The K-12 school sector in California has all the right ingredients to be an overachiever in the solar energy market. The potential for solar power to reduce uniquely high energy costs, while also diverting capital to direct improvements to education for all grade levels can be tapped with solar on portable classrooms and carports. Prioritizing the K-12 school sector is an important step toward reaching ambitious state-level renewable energy goals while also focusing precious public school resources where they belong — on the mission of educating our youth.

Marc Roper is chief commercial officer at San Mateo-based Alta Energya company that helps businesses and institutions achieve the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Roper has helped over 100 schools implement solar projects.