Seventh grader switches her school to solar

December 21, 2018

Part 1 of a series of 3 case studies on successful solar school campaigns.
See part 2 here and part 3 here.

Montana seventh grader Claire Vlases propelled her independent study project into a transformation of her school to solar power.

During the two-year campaign, she collaborated with her principal and fellow students and convinced the school board to approve and help finance the project. Together, they raised enough money to fund solar installations on her school as well as on two local elementary schools. 

Thanks to Claire, Sacajawea Middle School in Bozeman, Montana, now has a solar energy system that generates a quarter of the school’s electricity and saves about $8,000 every year.

The impact of the new solar installation extends well beyond today. “Schools last a long time, and so do solar panels,” said Claire. “And every student, parent, even grandparent that steps into the school has been impacted by the solar panel work by the students before them. Hopefully they will see this and be inspired to create change in their own community.”

From independent study to the school board

Claire started exploring solar energy for her independent study class as a way to improve her school, her community, and the environment. “I spend most of my time in school, and the rest of it outdoors, and it was important for me to connect the two,” she said.

She looked into solar panels as her school was undergoing a large-scale renovation and became convinced that a solar system should be part of the process. She pitched the idea to her school’s principal, Gordon Grissom, who agreed to consider the proposal but was also honest about potential challenges, such as regulations, stakeholder approval, and funding. Claire soon learned that the biggest challenge was the lack of dedicated funding for a solar installation, and that the district had not planned to install a system in the near future.

The school now powers a quarter of its electricity needs from the sun and saves roughly $8,000 every year.

She wasn’t deterred. She brought the idea to the weekly meeting of the school board. While she was nervous about her first time pitching to a large audience, she was well prepared with facts and figures demonstrating the benefits of solar.

Just before Claire spoke, the architects gave an update on the school renovation, which they said would bring the school into the 21st century. Claire then noted in her presentation that a real 21st-century school should be powered by clean energy. School board trustee Douglas Fischer said her idea was met with interest and support, and after a feasibility study was conducted at the school, the district pledged to cover a fifth of the estimated price tag.


“Solar Makes Sense at SMS”

Claire was determined to raise the remaining funds. She dubbed her campaign “Solar Makes Sense at SMS” and created a website to share information and attract funds. “Solar benefits everyone, so I tried to make the campaign something everyone could participate in,” she explained.

At school, Claire and other students raised $11,000 toward the solar panels, including by organizing a talent show and a “Pennies for Power” homeroom competition. She also wrote grants and met with potential donors. Her sixth-grade sister raised $3,000 by applying for a grant from the Bozeman Area Community Foundation’s Youth Giving project. In total, after receiving an $80,000 grant from the Kendeda Fund, the campaign raised $125,000 for the solar project.

Lasting Impact

Thanks to Claire’s determination and leadership, the largest solar energy system allowed in the state of Montana was installed at Sacajawea Middle School in the summer of 2018. The school now powers a quarter of its electricity needs from the sun and saves roughly $8,000 every year.

Solar energy “will help schools control costs from rising fuel expenses and make cleaner air and a healthier environment for kids,” said Douglas Fischer. “It will also provide great lessons for kids about engineering and energy.”

“Education was a part of our intention all along,” Principal Grissom told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. The school intends to include lessons and programs about alternative energy sources in its science classes, and will display a live feed in the entryway that logs the power generated and the money saved by the solar panels.

“My favorite part about this project was that one person like me could start something small and then the project could grow and have a big impact on the community.” 

During the two-year campaign, the cost for the 50-kilowatt solar energy system dropped to nearly half of the initial 2016 estimate. Two more Bozeman schools are now following suit, using leftover funds from Claire’s campaign to cover a large chunk of the cost of installing solar. As a result of the student-led solar campaign, the conversation about energy and sustainability in Bozeman Public Schools has completely shifted, and the potential for solar and other renewables is now heavily considered in the design and renovation of school facilities.

Claire credits her success to teamwork and to being open to learning new approaches. “It’s a lot easier for a community to work [together] to make a positive change, rather than just an individual alone,” she said. “There are always going to be barriers and hard parts. When there’s a challenge presented to you, use it as a learning moment and an opportunity to overcome it.”

Claire’s advice to others pursuing solar on their schools? “Never give up. Even if it seems like a lot of hard work, it will pay off.”

Ready to learn more about how to run a successful solar schools campaign in your community? Check out our Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit.


This holiday, put an electric vehicle on your wish list

December 18, 2018

It’s hard to believe they’re still running those ads—you know, the ones where the spouse surprises her partner with a shiny new SUV, festooned with an oversized red bow? We’re pretty sure that’s never happened in real life—but, if your family happens to be in the market for a new vehicle this year, the holidays can be a really good time to buy. And this year, more than ever, you’d do well to consider driving electric.

Buying an electric vehicle (EV) is a great way to take meaningful action toward a clean energy future. And the best part is, there are lots of new and more affordable options available as the economics of EVs continue to improve for large segments of the car-driving population.

An EV in Your Garage

Why do you need an EV in your garage? The reality is that EVs have a lot of advantages over conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Picture this: no more gas stations, transmission repairs, oil changes, or timing belt failures. Plus, you get immediate torque, a silent ride from a quiet motor, and premium performance. In a nutshell, EVs aren’t just a novel fad: they’re economical, they’re a pleasure to drive—and they’re also key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

Not convinced yet? Consider these points:

  • EVs are becoming mainstream. Nationwide, EV sales are expected to hit 2 percent of the new car market this year as Tesla’s Model 3 becomes one of America’s best-selling sedans. In California, the EV share is much higher—at around 7.5 percent—and the vehicles are increasingly popular in places from the U.S. northeast to metropolitan areas of Florida, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Washington.
  • EV options are expanding. With more and more options for styles, and a variety of different price ranges, your EV choices are expanding rapidly. Right now, at least 42 plug-in hybrid or battery-only EVs are on the market, and most major automakers have committed to investing in or producing new models in more categories over the next decade.
  • EVs require less maintenance. If you’re like most car owners, you dread heading to the dealer and forking over your life savings to replace the timing belt, transmission, or other engine parts as they age and break. Compared to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs have far fewer moving parts. This translates into fewer trips to the mechanic and lower maintenance costs overall—as well as, of course, no more pesky oil changes.
  • EVs save on fuel costs. The average U.S. household spends nearly a fifth of its total yearly expenditure on transportation. With an EV, you get the advantages of fueling up with electricity, which is less expensive than gasoline or diesel and generally has a more stable price. EVs are also far more efficient. By one estimate, driving an EV is roughly equivalent to fueling a conventional car with gas at $1 a gallon.
  • EVs come with financial incentives. EVs generally cost more upfront, but they have lower total ownership costs and are increasingly price-competitive with conventional gasoline vehicles. The federal government offers substantial tax credits of $2,500 to $7,500 per vehicle, and many states also provide rebates and tax credits for both EVs and charging infrastructure. In many areas, EV drivers get free access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
  • EV charging is getting even easier. Some battery-only EVs can reach up to 250 miles, but most range up to 100 miles on a single charge. For most of us, that’s farther than we drive in an average day, so an overnight charge at home should be sufficient. Meanwhile, new charging stations are being installed all across the country, and extreme fast chargers are under development that will make refueling even easier.
  • EVs reduce air pollution. Compared to fossil-fueled vehicles, EVs release fewer net emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Driving an EV can help urban areas meet federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the principal component of smog.
  • EVs make gas stations a thing of the past. By buying an EV instead of a gasoline-powered car, you can take real action on climate change and lead by example. Over its lifetime (from cradle to grave), an EV today causes 54 percent less carbon pollution than a comparable gas vehicle. And that number is only going to get better as our electricity grid sources more of its power from wind and solar.

These are just a few reasons why electric vehicles are generating so much interest, and are changing transportation for the better. So instead of putting another gift under the tree, maybe it’s time to drive a special (very big) one into the garage instead.