Solar success in the Midwest

November 18, 2020

An important part of Generation180’s Solar for All Schools campaign involves amplifying the successful work happening in communities around the country. This guest blog post comes to us from Amanda Schienebeck, program manager at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a nonprofit that’s been promoting clean energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable living through education and demonstration for thirty years.

Despite a less-than-ideal solar policy climate, Wisconsin schools are still going solar. In recent years, Wisconsin solar school campaigns have been led by student groups, school board members, and community solar champions. These campaigns have been motivated by school district renewable energy resolutions, financial savings, as well as environmental considerations. There are many pathways to solar, with each project being a unique experience specific to a district’s needs and motivations. Two recent Wisconsin success stories highlight the varied approaches that can lead to a successful solar installation.

Merton Community School District

Photo courtesy of SunVest Solar

The Merton Community School District is a 4K-8 grade public school district serving roughly 900 students in two schools: Merton Primary School and Merton Intermediate School. Until the state of Wisconsin changed the minimum per pupil revenue limit, Merton Community School District was the lowest per-pupil spending district in Waukesha County.  With declining enrollment, they saw that their revenue limit continued to decline. At this point, they began seeking ways to save money, especially in energy as this continued to be a “fixed cost” regardless of enrollment. ​ 

In the spring 2018, a school board member was pursuing solar energy for their home and brought the idea of solar PV to the district as a means to potentially save on operating expenses. The School Board and Village Hall met several times to run numbers and build support through the winter of 2018. They were encouraged by early technical calculations from SunVest which showed great potential. The district formally went to bid in March 2019 for a 389 kW DC system to be split between both Merton Primary and Merton Intermediate. SunVest was awarded the contract and by December of that year, the system was commissioned and online. 

The entire system is projected to produce almost two-thirds of the district’s energy needs, resulting in an average electricity savings of $70,000 per year for the system’s 30-year life. To help fund this project, they received an in-kind module donation for a portion of the system through MREA’s Solar on Schools program and a $68,000 RECIP Grant through Focus on Energy, together totaling over $100,000 in incentives. The remaining balance was paid through district dollars as well as a low-interest, ten-year loan. The payback period is anticipated to be no more than eight years. 

The Merton Community School District invested in solar primarily as a way to continue to save energy with the significant added benefit of contributing to a cleaner environment. The district Superintendent, Ronald Russ was exceptionally pleased with their decision to go solar, stating, “Our entire experience from start to finish was fantastic. School districts need to, at a minimum, pursue the opportunity that solar power might afford their district. After we looked at grants, the opportunity to create our own power, and the very quick return on investment, [solar] was something we could not ignore.”

Madison West High School

Photo courtesy of Madison West Green Club

Madison West High School students and staff continue to be passionately motivated to reduce West’s carbon footprint. West High School’s solar journey began as a student-led effort in 2017. From June 2017 through 2019, the West High Green Club raised over $89,000 from staff, students, parents, community members, the Madison Community Foundation, and other local foundations and businesses to support a West High solar installation. Charles Hua, West 2018 Alumni and former West Green Club President elaborated on the importance of the project, stating, “As one of the largest youth-led sustainability efforts in Wisconsin, this clean energy initiative…will provide students with hands-on learning opportunities in a growing clean energy job market, generate savings in electricity costs that will save taxpayers money, and reduce the school’s carbon footprint”

After completing a necessary roof replacement on West’s flat gym room, their school district went out to bid. The winning bidder, Westphal Electric, installed the 125 kW DC/95 kW AC system this past September for a total cost of around $170,000. In addition to West Green Club’s fundraising efforts, other significant funding sources included a Solar on Schools in-kind module grant of 50 kW and a $20,000 grant from the Left Coast Fund’s Solar Moonshot Program. The remaining balance was paid through existing operating budgets.

The system is anticipated to produce nearly 135 megawatt-hours every year, representing roughly 5.5% of the school’s annual energy needs, saving the district $13,861 annually and $415,830 over the 30-year lifetime of the system. The system will additionally include a comprehensive monitoring system and kiosk which will help provide students opportunities to interact with the PV system in their Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math (STEAM) classes.

The high school’s district, Madison Metropolitan School District, has made clean energy a priority, setting hard commitments to reach 50% of all operational energy needs with renewable energy by 2030, 75% by 2035, and 100% by 2040. On November 3rd, Madison voters approved an operating and facilities referendum for the district, which included $2 million specifically for environmental sustainability projects. The district aspires to be a place where all students and staff will eventually be able to work and study in a carbon-free setting.

The Wisconsin Solar on Schools Initiative

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association, in partnership with the Couillard Solar Foundation, developed the Wisconsin Solar on Schools initiative to help bridge the knowledge and experience gap that often limits schools from pursing solar PV systems. The Solar on Schools Resource Center houses a compilation of Wisconsin solar school case studies, RFP and other templates, guiding documents, finance modeling tools, expert-presented videos, a Wisconsin solar school peer network, and more to help schools’ Solar Planning Teams develop and execute a solar project. Additionally, to help lower the upfront cost of a solar installation, Solar on Schools provides an in-kind grant to Wisconsin schools in the form of a solar panel donation. Each grant is valued up to $20,000 with grants being awarded per school building installing solar.

Solar on schools is the kind of everyone-wins clean energy solution that communities all over the country need to discover and deploy as rapidly as possible. What’s needed now is this exact kind of work: awareness, education, and assistance in overcoming the inertia that keeps many schools unable to access the financial, educational, and community benefits of solar. 


Breathing easier with EVs

November 11, 2020

When people talk about the benefits of switching to electric vehicles (EVs), there’s a huge opportunity that’s often overlooked: the boon to our overall health and well-being. A recent report from the American Lung Association (ALA) estimates that a widespread transition to EVs could help avoid more than $72 billion in public health costs across the U.S. in 2050. These savings come from things like preventing asthma attacks, premature deaths, and workdays lost due to respiratory illnesses.

The reality is that the fossil fuel vehicles that we’re used to driving are perfect polluting machines. As they burn gas and diesel, they release fine particles of soot and dirt (PM2.5) that can lodge deep in the lungs, causing asthma and other respiratory illnesses, diabetes, developmental problems in children, and even premature death. Other harmful tailpipe emissions include hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, and formaldehyde. Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous to infants and to people suffering from heart disease because it interferes with the blood’s ability to transport oxygen.

ALA report: a widespread transition to EVs could help avoid more than $72 billion in public health costs across the U.S. in 2050.

These burdens aren’t distributed equally. Studies in California as well as in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions show that African-American, Latino, and Asian-American residents, and low-income communities overall, are exposed to far more air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses than other demographic groups. The racial inequities are well documented: in California, exposure to PM2.5 pollution is 43 percent higher among African Americans and 39 percent higher among Latinos, on average, compared to white populations. In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, communities of color breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents, and the shares are even higher for Latinos and Asian Americans specifically.

In many cases, it’s the folks who don’t even own cars that are being exposed to higher levels of vehicle pollution—simply because they’re surrounded by traffic throughout their daily routines. Just living near a major roadway can increase a person’s chance of developing asthma, especially for children who are exposed at an early age and aren’t able to fully develop their lung capacity. An ALA “State of the Air” report released this spring found that people of color are more than twice as likely as white people to live in counties with high particle and ozone pollution days, as well as unhealthy annual particle levels.

By comparison, EVs are veritable clean air dynamos. Because fully electric vehicles release no tailpipe emissions, they eliminate a wide range of contaminants, leading to vast improvements in air quality. Even when the electricity used to charge EVs comes from today’s conventional power mix, EVs are more emissions-friendly, producing less than half the emissions of comparable gas cars over their lifetime. Meanwhile, EVs charged with 100% renewable electricity—typically generated from wind and solar power—have ZERO direct or indirect emissions, making them a win-win for people’s health and for the climate. 

Even when the electricity used to charge EVs comes from today’s conventional power mix, EVs are more emissions-friendly.

In total, the recent ALA report found that emission reductions from EVs could prevent more than 93,000 asthma attacks, 6,300 premature deaths, and 416,000 lost workdays in 2050. In addition to bringing positive economic impacts and creating jobs, transitioning to 100% EV use would avoid climate impacts worth $113 billion in 2050. Although most of the benefits would come in big cities like Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, the report notes that 18 states would reap public health benefits of at least $1 billion each.

Here’s the catch: these huge health and economic benefits will only be realized if 100% of passenger car sales are electric by 2040 and all sales of heavy-duty vehicles are electric by 2045. This means we need to rapidly transition to electric for everything from commuter cars and city buses to delivery vans and long-distance cargo trucks. In addition to choosing electric for our personal wheels, we need to support wider government efforts to adopt stricter vehicle emissions standards, build out the nationwide charging infrastructure, provide rebates for EV buyers (especially low-income residents), and invest in electric public transit (including school buses). “The benefits…are by no means automatic,” noted Will Barrett, the ALA’s director of clean air advocacy. “We need leadership, we need policies, we need investments in this transition to zero emissions vehicles at every level.”

Of course, going electric goes hand in hand with a rethinking of our wider mobility needs. The quickest pathway to blue skies—as the COVID lockdowns this spring clearly showed us—is to cut back on our vehicle use altogether. But when that’s not possible, driving electric is a sure bet for cleaning up our emissions act and helping all of our communities breathe easier. Start today by pledging to make your next car electric.


What Biden’s win means for climate & clean energy

November 10, 2020

Now that we know the actual outcome of the election, let’s talk about how a Biden administration might impact our country’s action on climate and clean energy. Since control of the Senate won’t be decided until Georgia’s two runoff Senate races finish in January, we’re still speculating—but here’s the headline as of this week: The Biden administration will shift America’s direction on climate and clean energy from backwards to forwards in real, impactful ways—but the scope and duration of change could be significantly limited.

What the plan was (and still is)

As we’ve written about before, the Biden/Harris campaign ran on a climate plan (finally) big enough to begin meeting the scale of the crisis. A key plank of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, his climate plan is designed to create jobs and strengthen infrastructure while also tackling climate change. It calls for spending $2 trillion over four years to greatly increase the use of clean energy in the electricity, transportation, and building sectors, with an underlying emphasis on racial equity.

Climate change is one of the four priorities outlined on the new Biden-Harris transition website

Post-election, plans have stayed consistent so far: The details outlined in the newly created Biden-Harris Transition website are consistent with what the campaign ran on, with “Climate Change” being one of the four named priorities (along with “COVID-19,” “Economic Recovery,” and “Racial Equity”). In his speech last Saturday night, Biden again identified climate change as one of his top priorities as president, saying Americans must marshal the “forces of science” in the “battle to save our planet.” Regardless of congressional constraints, there is no doubt that this new administration will be a 180-degree turn toward climate and clean energy. Now it’s just a question of how much progress can be made.

What he can do

If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, important parts of Biden’s climate plan will be politically impossible; it will be extremely difficult to reach the breadth and depth of government action and investment that the challenge demands. In this scenario, what could he do? As usual, David Roberts at Vox has an excellent breakdown of this topic. In sum: Even if limited to executive action, the Biden adminstration can make a big impact. Action areas fall into three main buckets:

1. Reverse the massive deregulation rampage
Over the past four years, the Trump administration reversed or weakened 125 environmental safeguards, undoing much of Obama’s efforts to promote clean air and water and address the climate crisis. What one administration can unilaterally do, another can unilaterally undo (although the costly negative impact on global warming and precious time lost, unfortunately, cannot be undone):

  • Biden, as Roberts writes, “can instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a more ambitious version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan for the electricity sector, to work toward his goal of net-zero emissions electricity by 2035, and the Department of Transportation to develop, as his plan promises, ‘rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified.’” He can reimpose safeguards of public lands, prevent more water pollution and methane leakage, and much more.
  • It’s worth noting, however, as The New York Times writes, that “Mr. Biden may find it more difficult than his former boss, President Barack Obama, to use executive authority to create tough, durable climate change rules because the six-justice conservative majority on the Supreme Court is expected to look unfavorably on policies that significantly expand federal agencies’ authority to regulate industry.”

A good first step: rejoin that agreement with every other country in the entire world

2. Get America back into the global climate game
Rejoining the Paris Agreement will be an important first step—a critical signal to the world that, after abdicating its leadership role, America is ready to get back to work. After that, Biden could rejoin the World Health Organization and mobilize other industrialized, big polluters to invest more in clean energy and pursue deeper cuts to their own carbon emissions.

3. Get our financial system to include climate risk in their math
Perhaps no other sector holds as much sway over our progress toward (or away from) addressing climate and clean energy. And it’s within this financial system that Biden could make big moves. As Roberts writes, “One of the most important structural moves Biden can make is to use the powers granted to him by the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation to ensure that the Federal Reserve, and the financial system more broadly, takes climate risk into account, channeling investment away from carbon-intensive projects. (More on how to do that here.)”

Of course, if the Georgia cookie crumbles the Democrats’ way in January, the Biden administration will have a much clearer political path to take bold, equitable steps toward a clean energy future. With everyone—especially brown, black, indigenous, and frontline communities—having a seat at the table, massive government investment and incentives would accelerate the power sector’s deployment of renewable energy, ramp up installation of electric vehicle chargers, upgrade the building sector’s energy efficiency—all while creating millions of jobs.

Can we pass the tipping point?

While control of the Senate for the next two (or four) years matters a great deal given our window of opportunity to act on climate, elections keep happening, and America is still split (pretty darn evenly) into two political camps. Looking beyond the next few years, it’s worth revisiting a critical larger question: Can America make it past the tipping point so that accelerated, sustained progress on climate and clean energy can happen?  Here’s some evidence that we can:

All this makes the optimistic case that, beneath the choppy, boiling surface of politics and elections, forces are shifting the boundaries of possibility around climate and clean energy. The signs are all around, telling us that we are tantalizingly close to a tipping point in this country.

Even with a leader in the White House that understands the challenge and is ready to act, however, a mass mobilization of the public is still needed to continue pushing for federal, state, and local action in order to meet this moment. As voting constituents that support America’s transition to clean energy, we must keep the pressure on the White House, Congress, governors, statehouses, city councils, and corporations. As homeowners, community members, and employees we must act however and whenever we can. We can secure the clean energy future we all want and need, but there’s not a moment more to lose.