Near the state capital of Harrisburg lies the town of Steelton, Pennsylvania, the home of America’s first steel company and the birthplace of an industry that has long relied upon burning fossil fuels. Down the street from the 150-year-old steel mill is the campus of Steelton-Highspire School District (SHSD), which is forging ahead as one of the first Pennsylvania school districts to power its buildings and its buses with onsite renewable energy.
One hundred years ago, the challenge of that generation was to manufacture and build the modern American economy. What our generation has to tackle is how to transition our economy to a greener, carbon-free economy…I am so proud of this community because it is living up to its legacy. One hundred years ago, we were on the forefront. Now, we are on the forefront again of building the new future and the new America.
– Rep. David Madsen, 104th District of Pennsylvania House of Representatives
The school district found its way to renewable energy out of financial necessity. Steelton-Highspire School District (SHSD) sought creative solutions to overcome its annual budget gap of $10 million per year and provide the best educational experience for its diverse and predominantly low-income population of less than 1,500 students. SHSD found that energy efficiency and solar energy could provide significant operational cost savings to help the district balance its budget. The district’s 1.7 MW solar array powers 100% of the district’s electricity needs and is expected to provide $4 million in energy savings over the next two decades.
We’re looking for small wins, projects that save the taxpayers and the district money. This project enabled us to funnel money that would typically go to energy costs to programs that support the students. We are saving money, and students are learning about our energy use and generation through real-time data associated with the solar array.
– Superintendent Mick Iskric, Steelton-Highspire School District
Energy efficiency leads to solar savings
Over the last two decades, the district has been lowering its energy bills with energy efficiency upgrades. The district worked with the energy service company, McClure Company, to upgrade its facilities without any upfront costs through a guaranteed energy savings agreement. In this arrangement, McClure Company invests in the capital improvements for the energy upgrades and guarantees an amount of energy savings. The district uses its energy savings over time to help pay for the project over the life of the contract.
The success of these efficiency projects led the district to explore more ways to save on energy costs and position themselves as a leader in energy independence. In the process of exploring onsite solar energy options, the district was able to find a beneficial use for a 4.7-acre landfill on school district property that was built in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. This area could not be used for future buildings or athletic fields, but it was suitable for installing a solar array that could meet 100% of the district’s electricity needs. Starting with energy efficiency helped the district to reduce its energy demand and optimize the size of the solar array it needed. SHSD entered into a power purchase agreement (PPA) with McClure Company to finance the project without any upfront costs. SHSD purchases the electricity produced by the array from McClure Company at a lower rate than it would pay the utility, resulting in immediate energy cost savings. Since the solar energy system went live in late 2021, the district was able to avoid two utility rate hikes and it is now saving $200,000 per year in energy costs.
Charging ahead with electric school buses
SHSD continues to lead in its transition to clean energy as one of the first districts in the state to switch to electric school buses. In 2022, the district was awarded a $2,585,000 rebate from the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program to pay for seven electric school buses. The district’s location in a climate and economic justice community, based on its elevated climate risk, high rates of asthma, and percentage of low-income households, made it a priority for receiving federal funding through the White House’s Justice40 initiative. The district is also planning to partner with Penn State Health on a study to research the air quality and health benefits to the community by reducing diesel emissions from its buses. The electric school bus batteries will be charged by the solar array and can store enough energy to power critical energy loads during outages, enabling the school campus to serve as a resiliency hub for the community during power outages or natural disasters.
Steelton-Highspire is a leading example of how an economically disadvantaged school district can play a role in the clean energy transition while serving their community in new and innovative ways. SHSD’s success in clean energy and budget management also benefits its students by improving STEM education and developing unique career and technical training opportunities.