How to lead the charge to help your schools go solar

April 19, 2019

Last month, hundreds of thousands of students around the globe walked out of school to speak up for their future and participate in Youth Strike 4 Climate. The actions of young people like Greta Thunberg and her peers around the world continue to spotlight our need for immediate action. This leadership from schoolchildren begs a follow-up question: can our schools—the institutions that shape and prepare our kids—help bring about a clean energy future as well?

Turns out the answer is an emphatic “yes”. In Generation 180’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, students and parents are advocating for their school districts to advance the adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency. Generation 180 supported community members in a local campaign to advocate for a commitment from two school districts to take stronger climate action. These community members coordinated meetings with school district and municipal staff, drafted school board resolutions, collected petition signatures, and garnered community support. Students from first grade through high school came to school board meetings to share their reasons for wanting clean energy and climate action at their schools. As a result of their efforts, Albemarle County Public Schools passed a resolution last fall that committed to expand efforts to secure renewable energy systems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Last week, Charlottesville City Schools passed a resolution committing to increased energy performance, clean energy, and water conservation.


Where you come in

You may not have realized it yet, but you have the power to help your schools make the switch to clean energy. And you don’t need to be an energy expert: students, parents, teachers, and community members can all lead the charge. All you need is passion, dedication to make a difference in your community, and our newly published Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit.

The Solar Schools Campaign Toolkit is a step-by-step guide to running an effective solar campaign at your local schools. It includes a complete campaign roadmap, tips, template documents, case studies, and more. Co-written with our partner Climate Parents, it’s got everything necessary to empower you to be a champion for solar at your schools.

As schools across the country look to enhance learning, optimize financial resources, and protect the health of our children, it’s clear that solar energy is a solution that can help lead the way to a cleaner and brighter future. Switching to solar energy benefits schools, families, and communities.

Why schools?

Nationwide, schools are spending $8 billion a year on energy costs, their second-largest expense after personnel. There’s now a tremendous opportunity for schools to save money and to reinvest in students by switching to clean energy. The energy used by K-12 schools in the U.S. is responsible for as much carbon dioxide emissions as 18 coal-fired power plants, and we know that children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. By transitioning to solar, schools can do their part to reduce harmful pollution and protect the health and well-being of their students.

Why now?

The cost of solar panels is one-third of what it was just 10 years ago, and solar power is now the fastest growing source of new energy globally. Driven largely by the drastically falling costs for solar power, the number of U.S. schools that have invested in solar has grown by approximately 50 percent  since 2014.


What’s the opportunity?

The cumulative installed solar capacity at U.S. K-12 schools has grown more than a hundredfold during the past decade. Today, more than 5,500 schools nationwide are harnessing the power of the sun (check out our map to find schools near you). Yet despite this tremendous growth, only 5% of schools are taking advantage of the benefits of solar energy.

If every school in the country installed an average-sized school solar system, they would generate enough clean energy (37.8 gigawatts) to power 6.2 million homes. There is incredible potential to transform how we power our schools.

What does a solar schools campaign look like?

While every campaign is unique, we’ve created a roadmap to help you follow the four general phases that most campaigns take:

Roadmap for a solar schools campaign

A successful solar schools campaign generally takes around 18 months from start to finish (from assembling your team to installation of a solar system), though this can vary greatly depending on all sorts of factors. We’ve written up case studies that showcase the variety of stakeholders, paths, and timelines that can lead to a successful end result: check out how a seventh grader led a successful campaign in Montana, how a science teacher in Michigan guided his students in their campaign to power their science department with solar, and how other exemplary districts across the country are making bold moves toward clean energy.

Powering schools with clean energy can have a positive ripple effect across the community: the visibility of solar on schools demonstrates the viability and affordability of clean energy solutions to local homeowners and businesses. Schools can be the catalysts for change to help drive us toward a cleaner, healthier future. What most school communities need to set them on the path to solar, however, is a spark. That’s where you come in.

Check out the Campaign Toolkit


Solar-powered science in Michigan

April 3, 2019

Part 3 of a series of 3 case studies on successful solar school campaigns.
Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 as well.

The science department at a southeast Michigan high school is now fully powered by solar energy, thanks to the dedication of a teacher and his students. West Bloomfield High School first received a grant for a 3.4 kilowatt (kW) solar array in 2011. This small solar system generated enough energy to power the science classroom of Joshua Barclay, but his students in the E.A.R.T.H. (Environmentally Aware, Ready To Help) Club wanted to do more.  They wanted to leave a lasting legacy by providing the school with free energy for the future.

Over the next few years, Barclay’s students researched what it would take to power the school’s entire science department with clean energy. To estimate the total energy demand, his honors physics class conducted a full energy audit of the department in 2017. They measured the energy draw of every device across all science classrooms, interviewed teachers to find out when the devices were on, and then used the data to estimate the department’s total annual energy use.

The students realized that energy efficiency is a critical  step to enabling renewable power. They calculated that simply upgrading all of the department’s lighting to LEDs would reduce the energy use by half and make it feasible to power all the entire science department with the addition of a 20 kW solar system.

Student-driven solar campaign

Barclay and his students in the E.A.R.T.H. club embarked on the solar campaign that they dubbed 20kW by 2020. After two years of dedication and hard work, the students raised nearly $25,000 for the project. They conducted bagel and pizza sales, collected donations for an LED bulb fundraiser, hosted a crowdfunding campaign, and applied for several grants.

The E.A.R.T.H. club  also conducted a solar energy resource analysis to determine the best location on campus for the solar system and to calculate the cost savings and reductions in carbon emissions provided by the 20 kW solar system. They made several presentations to the school board to explain the benefits of the school going solar. Once the financing was in place, the school board gave them the approval to go ahead.

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The students successfully fundraised for the upfront investment of $21,000. With that down payment, the school could lease a 20 kW solar system for 5.5 years and purchase the electricity produced from that system at 10% lower cost than its current wholesale rate.  After the lease period, the school would own the system outright and benefit from the free energy of the sun for the life of the solar panels. The school is expected to save $65,000 in electricity costs over 25 years.  “My students wanted to do this for the school district—to give them free energy for the future,” said Barclay.

Hands-on science learning

“From conception to installation to operation, our solar energy system has been a fantastic tool to teach real-world science,” says Barclay. West Bloomfield High School students have been actively involved in every step of the process to power the science department with clean energy. Over the course of a few years, students calculated the science department’s energy needs, raised the money for the solar panels, secured school district approval, and even installed the ground-based solar photovoltaic system.

Barclay will use the solar system as a tool for real-world learning and work with the E.A.R.T.H. club to learn how maintain the system for peak performance. When the school was given different advice from different solar installers on the best angle to set the solar arrays, this science teacher saw an opportunity for his students to research this real-world question.Beginning in 2019, Barclay’s students are going to experiment with different angles for the solar panel placement to assess which angle generates the most energy over various time scales. They will test different hypotheses to determine the optimal set up for the arrays, and they can share their results with local solar companies.

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Benefits beyond the science classroom

The students involved in this solar project gained life skills that they will take with them into adulthood. The students applied economics when they had to create a financial goal for the 20 kW solar system, raise the money for their goal, and continue to research new ways to finance the solar system. By advocating for solar to the school board, they were practicing civics and learning the power of expressing their views to their local elected leaders. Throughout the process, the students were mastering their collaboration, communication and problem-solving skills.

The new solar panels the students installed will also benefit the community by keeping 30 tons of carbon dioxide pollution out of the atmosphere each year.  The solar panels will be a reminder to the school community of the role we can all play in creating a clean energy future together. “Our solar system is not only accessible to our kids for learning, but it is also in a visible place on our school grounds where the public can see what we are doing and learn that solar is available for all,” said Barclay.

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