Feature

Schools chase energy savings, educational opportunity in solar

Poway Unified School District in Southern CA expects to save $250,000 per year because of its project.

Poway Unified School District in Southern California is about a month away from installing solar panels on 16 of its campuses and it expects the shift to solar to save $250,000 per year in energy costs.

The overall energy bill for the 38-school, nearly 36,000-student district is expected to drop 13%. That’s partially because of cheaper electricity from solar and partially because of a helpful electric rate rule in California. As long as 10% of the district’s total energy use is covered by its solar panels, the local energy company will charge it a significantly lower rate, based on its day-to-day energy use rather than peak demand.

And the district doesn’t have any up-front costs for the solar panels themselves. A company called Alta Energy is installing them and will maintain them for the next 20 years, while it and Poway have a power purchase agreement with locked-in energy rates. Poway is buying energy from Alta, which in turn gets to take advantage of government tax breaks for solar energy projects.

This isn’t the district’s first foray into solar energy. It has a prior power purchase agreement that covers four additional schools, and one of its schools was built with solar panels integrated into the design and construction costs. The district owns that solar system outright.

Poway is not alone in exploring energy savings with solar.

K-12 school districts spend a combined total of more than $8 billion on energy each year, placing this cost second only to salaries and benefits as a single line item in some districts, higher even than textbooks. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that at least one-quarter of energy costs could be avoided with smarter energy management.

Converting to solar provides another strategy. A handful of states have made this conversion particularly attractive – including California, New Jersey and Massachusetts – tempting schools to explore new projects. Arizona also has a fairly significant cluster of school districts using solar.

Chad Koster, director of maintenance and facilities at Poway Unified, said the main driver for considering solar is because of its potential to help bring down energy bills. For his district, there are savings in the solar energy itself, but even greater savings because of the rate structure change that investing in solar precipitates.

Koster said the savings will be reinvested into other energy-saving projects and used to offset routine maintenance costs in the district.

Beyond Poway’s bottom line, the continued focus on solar will impact the classroom, too. Koster expects to install dashboards in every school with solar during the 2017-18 school year, giving students and teachers access to energy use information.

“You can watch real-time what’s going on at your school,” Koster said, adding that the dashboards will display the amount of solar energy being collected as well as the total energy use for the building. Students will see what happens to energy use when the air conditioning is turned on, for example, and district administrators will use the dashboards to better manage energy use in each school.

Koster said teachers are already considering embedding lessons about solar energy into career and technical education courses and certain science classes. As more schools get solar, Koster said it will probably become a larger part of the educational program.

Marc Roper, vice president of marketing at Alta Energy, has worked on solar projects in several states and he says that educational benefit is important to most schools that consider these projects. Some lead students through projects about how solar energy collection translates into other energy saved, dollars saved, greenhouse gas emissions avoided and more.

“That’s a big piece of most solar on schools,” Roper said. “It’s always sort of combined with, ‘Can we turn this into a living laboratory?’”

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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Mosaic Energy