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Solar power making a comeback among schools

The Athenian School's solar panels form the shape of an 'A' near the school's baseball field.
The Athenian School’s solar panels form the shape of an ‘A’ near the school’s baseball field.

Web surfers requesting a Google Earth view of the Athenian School in Danville, Calif., are greeted with an image of what school officials call the “solar A”—a mass of 1,300 solar panels on a hillside near the school, and a testament to the nation’s renewed interest in sustainable energy resources and solar power to cut school energy bills.

Solar energy proponents say an increased focus on “green” lifestyles and practices has helped place the technology once again near the forefront of school energy practices. While solar power is not a new idea, it gained momentum during the energy crisis of the 1970s, which led to tax incentives for solar power. Once fuel prices stabilized, however, tax incentives disappeared. But now, with an uncertain economy, rising fuel prices, and deep cuts to education, solar power once again holds attractive benefits for school districts.

The Athenian School’s system—1,300 panels sit above the school’s baseball field—supplies 50 percent of the school’s power needs, said Bob Oxenburgh, Athenian’s director of facilities.

The California Solar Initiative covered one-third of the installation cost, Oxenburgh said, and the school partnered with a solar installation company to construct the system. California-based Tioga Energy owns the installation, which sits on the Athenian School’s property, and Tioga Energy recoups its investment by selling power directly to the school in what is known as a power purchase agreement (PPA).

The Athenian School signed an agreement to initiate the solar energy program with Tioga Energy and REC Solar in August 2008, and on Dec. 10, 2008, the system generated its first power.

State incentives and tax credits help immensely in a solar power installation, Oxenburgh said, because the actual systems are very expensive. Oxenburgh said surrounding schools and districts with plans for solar installation have toured the school for more information about the installation process.

And while the Athenian School has no plans to build additional buildings for quite some time, Oxenburgh said solar power will be a part of any future construction.

“We would not construct anything without most of [the power] being supplied by renewable energy; that’s the only thing that makes sense,” he said. “We want to get off the grid as much as we can.”

Five New Jersey school districts in the state’s Morris County—Boonton, Mountain Lakes, Parsippany-Troy Hills, West Morris Regional, and Morris Hills Regional—have entered into a program with Tioga Energy and SunDurance Energy, a New Jersey solar development team.

Fourteen schools will have solar panels installed on their roofs, and Morris County official William Chegwidden said the participating districts will pay 35 percent less for power from the solar systems in the first year of the program than they would pay for utility-provided power.

Boonton School Superintendent Christine Johnson predicted a $16,000 savings and a 36-percent reduction in energy consumption in the first year of the program. Johnson said savings could reach $25,000 per year as the program progresses.

Tioga Energy and SunDurance Energy will oversee the design, installation, operation, and maintenance of the solar equipment, which will reside on the schools’ roofs. Morris County will purchase its solar-produced electricity at a fixed price through a 15-year PPA with Tioga Energy.

“Through this program, our participating schools will be able to significantly cut their energy bills without incurring any direct out-of-pocket expenses,” Chegwidden said.

Roughly 17 percent of the schools’ electricity requirements will come from the solar energy systems.

The program has been dubbed the “Morris Model,” and county officials said other school districts in the state have expressed interest in replicating the solar power installation.

Burton Valley Elementary School and Stanley Middle School in California’s Lafayette School District each installed 131-kilowatt solar power systems, which supply enough clean energy to reduce the schools’ energy bills by up to 60 percent.

In December, California’s Lafayette School District unveiled new solar systems at four schools under projects developed through two separate PPAs with Tioga Energy and Solar Monkey.

The systems at Burton Valley Elementary School and Stanley Middle School are provided through PPAs from Tioga Energy and Solar Monkey. Lafayette Middle School’s 76-kilowatt system and Springhill Elementary’s 100-kilowatt system are provided through PPAs directly from Solar Monkey.

All four rooftop installations combined will reduce the amount of electricity the district must purchase from its utility company by an estimated 40 to 60 percent.

Fred Brill, the district’s superintendent, said that schools are well-suited for solar power both in design and in the educational opportunities that solar power presents for students.

“Schools are an excellent place for solar,” he said. “Our electric rates, consumption patterns, and facilities are ideally suited to maximize the potential benefits solar can deliver. And by showing solar in action, schools educate the community and students about the benefits of this clean and renewable energy source.”

And schools are quick to realize the financial benefits of solar power, despite an often daunting initial cost.

“It’s the high upfront costs that have historically stood in the way of making solar a reality for schools,” Brill noted.

California’s Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) will partner with SPG Solar and SunEdison to install solar energy systems on 21 of its facilities, including schools and administrative buildings.

The solar program, which will be implemented throughout 2010, is expected to generate 6.6 million kilowatt-hours of clean renewable energy per year and save the district more than $17 million over 20 years.

Michael Parham, an IUSD board member, said he believes the decision to install solar not only will benefit the district financially, but will pave the way for educational opportunities as well.

“This could be one of the most valuable teaching tools we have in our schools,” Parham said. “We need sustainability in our schools, not just on our roofs or in our recycling programs, but in our classrooms, too. That is why, as good as this solar energy program will be, what we will be doing to use solar energy to teach our kids about math, science, business, finance, and art will be even more important.”

When the project is completed, more than 44 percent of electricity for the 21 sites should be generated by solar power. This is expected to reduce IUSD’s total energy costs by approximately 10 percent each year. Environmental Protection Agency estimates note that IUSD’s solar systems will prevent nearly 127 million pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere over the next 20 years—equivalent to removing 12,000 cars from California roads per year.

Legal support for solar initiatives

On April 1, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., introduced the Solar Schools Act, a bill that would make it more affordable for schools to install solar power systems.

Giffords is a member of the House Science and Technology Committee and an enthusiastic solar power supporter. Last year, she introduced the Solar Technology Roadmap Act.

Currently, government institutions—including school districts—can develop solar energy in one of two ways: through an agreement with a solar installer who maintains ownership of the panels and who can claim an investment tax credit, or by financing the purchase of the solar system through tax-exempt bonds.

If school districts were able to combine both approaches, financing a solar installation through tax-exempt bonds and claiming the investment tax credit, it would make clean renewable energy much more affordable, the bill says.

The Solar Schools Act would allow schools to use proceeds from tax-exempt bonds to enter into pre-paid contracts for renewable energy. Publicly owned utilities already are granted just such an exemption to enter into similar contracting agreements. The act would extend that exemption to local government entities.

Giffords announced the new bill at La Cima Middle School in Arizona, where a solar power system was installed in February 2008. The 54 panels in the system generate approximately 15,000 kilowatt hours per year—enough energy to power 1.5 average-size homes. This solar system saves burning seven tons of coal per year and saves the release of 10 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority launched School Power…Naturally in 2003, a $2.1 million program involving 50 schools selected to receive a solar energy and data collection system. The system is worth about $24,000, and each school contributes $1,500.

In 2008, the program received an additional $1.275 million to upgrade and expand its capabilities.

Schools have access to a curriculum focused on the solar energy program, including web-based tools and contests.

Each participating school has a 2-kilowatt solar power system on its roof, which is tied into classroom lessons. Participating schools also were outfitted with equipment and software that provide performance data on the solar power system.

On March 25, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 205, which helps clear the way for school districts across the state to leverage Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCBs) to finance infrastructure projects, including the installation of solar systems to reduce energy costs. QSCBs are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which authorizes these special low-interest bonds for schools seeking to improve infrastructure.


Tioga Energy

The Athenian School

The California Solar Initiative

Morris County Schools

Lafayette School District

Irvine Unified School District

The Solar Schools Act (PDF)

School Power…Naturally

California Senate Bill 205

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