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California School District Responds to Climate Emergency with Energy Resilience

September 26, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 3rd edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. K-12 Schools (2020). This story was updated September 2022. 

When Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) students came back to school this year, they were welcomed with newly installed solar canopies at fourteen school sites that will power close to all of the district’s electricity needs. During the school year, battery storage will be installed at six of those sites to form solar-powered microgrids that can store energy onsite and provide power to the buildings when the grid goes down.

Mudslide in Santa Barbara County in January 2018

The district began planning for energy resilience after historic wildfires and mudslides devastated the Montecito community in Santa Barbara County in January 2018. The schools were called on to serve as safe havens and emergency response centers. Nearly five years after that climate emergency, the school district is prepared for future power outages with energy resilience hubs that can keep schools operating and provide needed services for community members. 

Two years before the disastrous mudslides occurred, a newly elected member of the Board of Education, Laura Capps, had begun advocating for the district to become more environmentally sustainable. As a longtime Santa Barbara resident, she was proud of Santa Barbara’s history as the birthplace of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. She thought the school district could be doing more to protect the planet for future generations, and she wanted to change the fact that none of the schools in the district had solar panels. Capps discovered that one neighboring district had cut electricity costs by almost $1 million annually by producing its own solar energy, prompting her to become the champion for installing solar arrays at SBUSD. 

Although Capps had repeatedly brought up the benefits of solar energy at board meetings and budget discussions, she could not get the support of other board members and district leaders, who were more concerned with competing priorities. According to Capps, “there was the feeling that if you focus on sustainability you are taking your eye off the ball of literacy — the more fundamental mission of a school system.”

Only after natural disaster struck the community did Capps finally get agreement to move forward with solar arrays and to develop a comprehensive energy resilience plan. In 2019, the district began to move forward with energy resilience plans as the threat of wildfires around California caused statewide utilities to de-energize power lines to prevent from sparking wildfires. Millions of Californians lost power that year due to these public safety power shut-offs triggered by threats of wildfires.

Photo credit: Clean Coalition

Santa Barbara Unified School District teamed up with nonprofit Clean Coalition to develop plans for state-of-the-art, solar-powered microgrids that deliver a high level of energy resilience and diminished electricity costs. The district now has 4.2 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity across fourteen sites, including twelve schools, a district office, and a food storage warehouse. The solar canopies will power 94-98% of the district’s electricity needs. The battery storage being installed at six of the fourteen sites will have 1.9 MW power rating/3.8 MWh battery capacity. The battery storage can support all of the electricity loads of those buildings when solar energy is plentiful.

The district financed the project through a 28-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with the project developer Engie, which required no upfront capital costs paid by the district. In total, the projects are estimated to save the school district a total of $7.8 million throughout the life of the 28-year agreement. According to Clean Coalition, the solar-powered microgrids provide an additional $6.5 million in value-of-resilience (VOR), which is the monetary value of keeping the building powered.

 “It’s a win for our finances — this project will save $8 million over the lifetime of the project, which is money that can go directly back into the classroom. And it is clearly a win for our community — this will help us reach Santa Barbara city’s target of zero emissions. Finally, we are doing our part by transitioning to renewable energy,”  said Laura Capps, SBUSD Board of Education

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The New York Times and President Bill Clinton spotlight Generation180

September 20, 2022

Generation180’s new national report on schools going solar garnered some high-profile attention in the last week.  Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. K-12 Schools, 4th edition, has helped to stir up a national conversation on how schools powered by clean energy can be a scalable climate solution that benefits school budgets, student education, and the warming planet. 

In a Sept. 19 Associated Press (AP) story, former President Bill Clinton cited the study during a Clinton Global Initiative meeting. 

“[President Clinton] points to a study from Generation180, a nonprofit that promotes the use of clean energy. Its research shows some rural schools have installed solar panels to reduce their carbon emissions and their electric bills. The schools then used the savings to give raises to teachers.”  

“The energy is here. The jobs are here. The benefits are here. The kids win,” [President] Clinton said.  “That shouldn’t be a political issue.”

The New York Times climate reporter Cara Buckley published the Sept. 15 piece Facing Budget Shortfalls, These Schools Are Turning to the Sun,  featuring Generation180’s report findings and many school districts’ stories about the benefits of solar.  

From New Jersey to California, nearly one in 10 K-12 public and private schools across the country were using solar energy by early 2022, according to data released Thursday by Generation180, a nonprofit that promotes and tracks clean energy. That’s twice as many as existed in 2015…

Tish Tablan, program director at Generation180, said the normalization of solar was especially potent when it came to public schools. “When schools go solar, students learn about it, they talk to parents, families are inspired,” she said, “We see a ripple effect across communities.”

The New York Times article tells the stories of schools from Montana to Virginia that have made the transition to solar and reaped the benefits of cost savings, resilience, and reinvesting in students and families. Generation180 connected the news outlet with school district leaders in our Clean Energy School Leader Network to talk about their experiences in going solar, including David Childress from Louisa County Public Schools in Virginia, Doug Arnold from Orange County Public Schools in Virginia, Laura Capps from Santa Barbara Unified School District in California, Mike Tatsey in Heart Butte, Montana, and Michael Hester from Batesville School District in Arkansas. 

Read and share the articles to keep the conversation going about the potential power of solar energy for schools! Visit our Solar for All Schools campaign page to get resources on how to get involved in bringing solar to a school in your community. 

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Community Solar Benefits Tribal Members

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

The local high school on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, home to around 9,100 tribal members in Heart Butte, Montana, is the host of a community solar project that is serving the community by reducing energy costs. With almost 40% of the population living in poverty, more than twice the state average, families are struggling to pay their electricity bills. Heart Butte Public Schools teamed up with local utility Glacier Electric Cooperative and nonprofit GRID Alternatives to develop a solution that would help the school district and its neighbors save money. With grant funding provided by the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund and Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the district installed a 160 kW community solar array at Heart Butte High School in July 2021.

What Is Community Solar?

Equitable access to solar power is growing through a practice called community solar, also known as shared solar or solar gardens. Community solar enables customers (or subscribers) to buy or rent part of an off-site solar system and receive credit on their energy bill for the electricity it produces. This arrangement allows people to enjoy the benefits of solar without having to install their own system, making solar accessible to those who rent or cannot afford to install solar.

Heart Butte High School is expected to save $42,000 in electricity costs over 30 years. Households can subscribe, with no upfront costs, to the community solar program and anticipate savings of approximately $200 per year. Glacier allows 20 community members to enroll per year and the program is fully subscribed. Moving forward, Glacier will rotate enrolled subscribers annually to spread the benefits to as many new households as possible. The program is expected to reduce electricity costs for the community by a total of $120,000.

“We thought it was a good idea. Instead of just powering the school, we’re sending 75% of the electricity to the community. That’s because we’re all about the kids’ basic needs being met before they come in to learn. It’s putting money back into the pockets of kids and their families every month, and that’s a direct benefit to the people,” explains Mike Tatsey, Heart Butte Public Schools Superintendent.

This community solar project brought another important benefit to Heart Butte students and tribal members: workforce development. GRID employed community members to install the solar array and provided online and in-person training to develop those skills within the tribal community. GRID provided hands-on training for Heart Butte High School students, exposing them to possible career paths in renewable energy and helping them acquire job skills. Trainees learned about solar systems, acquired the necessary skills to complete a solar installation, and got an opportunity to complete a roof or ground installation. The students received pay and benefits for their work as well as equipment they would need in the field.

One student, Jaiden Comesatnight, got involved with GRID’s student training after learning about the Heart Butte Community Solar Project from his counselor and principal. He joined the project a few months after graduating high school and worked on the solar installation for about a month and a half. After his work on the project, GRID offered him a full-time job as a solar installer.

“My uncle has worked on wind turbines, but I’m the first in my family to work in the solar industry,” says Jaiden. “One thing I enjoy the most about my job is that I get to travel around the country, something many of my family members on the reservation haven’t experienced before.”

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Bringing Energy Choice to the Whole Community

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

North Community High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the host site for an innovative community solar project that prioritizes climate justice, diversity, and equity. The high school serves a racially and economically diverse community, making it an ideal location to install a solar garden that provides community members an opportunity to access clean, cost-saving energy. Minneapolis Public Schools and the City of Minneapolis together benefit from 20% of the array’s electricity, and the remainder is allocated for the benefit of subscribers in the community.

What Is Community Solar?

Equitable access to solar power is growing through a practice called community solar, also known as shared solar or solar gardens. Community solar enables customers (or subscribers) to buy or rent part of an off-site solar system and receive credit on their energy bill for the electricity it produces. This arrangement allows people to enjoy the benefits of solar without having to install their own system, making solar accessible to those who rent or cannot afford to install solar.

The North Community High School Community Solar Garden is a collaborative project involving the school district, local government, and community partners. Two local Black-owned businesses, Renewable Energy Partners and Go Solar Construction, developed and installed the 365 kW solar garden, which went online in summer 2022. Nonprofit Minneapolis Climate Action partnered with Renewable Energy Partners to enroll families in the solar garden and administer subscriptions.

The solar garden is set up with low-income households in mind. Families who wouldn’t normally have access to solar are first in line for subscriptions. To increase accessibility, enrollment requires no credit checks or upfront costs. If subscribers want to save more on their electricity bill, they can choose to pay a one-time subscription fee. The solar garden has the capacity to power up to 70 homes, and to date 65 households have subscribed.

“Community solar gives people an opportunity to own their own solar array and participate in something collectively with their neighbors,” said Kristel Porter, executive director of Minnesota Renewable Now and a leader of community engagement efforts around the solar garden.

“This is especially important for communities that often get left behind in so many ways. It’s empowering for them too – they finally have a say in something that directly impacts their lives.”

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Student Action Leads to First 100% Solar-Powered School in Maine

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

At Mount Desert Island High School (MDIHS) in Bar Harbor, Maine, a group of passionate students is driving clean energy and climate change initiatives. In 2016, a high school senior research project found that the school roof could hold enough solar panels to power MDIHS’s electricity needs. With support from local nonprofit A Climate to Thrive, the student project became a plan supported by principal Matt Haney to make MDIHS the first school in Maine to be 100% powered by solar.

The student-led ECO (Environmental Concerns Organization) Team played a significant role in the solar project. Students helped review bids from solar installers and made recommendations on the selected proposal. Their efforts paid off in the fall of 2019 when MDIHS’s solar array went online, reducing the school’s carbon emissions by 810,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. ECO Team students educated their peers about the project’s benefits and held a school assembly to celebrate the new solar array. In 2020, MDIHS was one of two Maine schools recognized as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School.

Following the solar project, the ECO Team created Project Legacy, an initiative to expand on what they started and bring clean energy to their community and other Maine schools. Through Project Legacy, students are involved in obtaining a commitment from the school board to make the district carbon neutral by 2030, integrating climate change and renewable energy topics across the curriculum, and studying impacts of climate change on diverse communities.

The ECO Team’s clean energy advocacy is having a ripple effect in the community. Sparked by MDIHS’s solar project and student-led publicity efforts, two large community solar farms were installed on Mount Desert Island. Several students wrote a white paper explaining how MDIHS went solar to provide a road map for others to follow, and several schools around Maine have since committed to solar projects. The ECO Team is also inspiring long-term change by building trust in the community. Recently, ECO Team students secured commitments from two town councils to create climate task forces that will address issues raised by students.

Principal Haney is proud of what his students have accomplished.

“Making the transition to clean energy in our schools and communities is more likely to happen when students can advocate with decision-makers beyond the school. Our community believes in and trusts our students. There’s more power in their words than in mine.”

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Cultivating Tomorrow’s Scientists through Agrivoltaics

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

Several years ago, a group of students in Barbara Hurley’s environmental science class at Rincon High School in Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) began exploring real-world questions in their school’s agrivoltaics garden. One question they wanted to answer: could they successfully plant carrots, usually grown in cooler temperatures, in the heat of late summer when shaded under a solar panel canopy? The students’ curiosity and hard work paid off when they harvested a healthy crop of carrots in late fall and proved that the cooler, wetter microclimate created under the solar panels could change the seasonality of plant lifecycles.

Ms. Hurley’s students have a unique opportunity to conduct college-level research and make scientific discoveries about agrivoltaics, thanks to a collaboration between TUSD and the University of Arizona’s (UA) Community and School Garden Workshop. This partnership began in 2009 when UA was seeking internship opportunities to expand its agrivoltaics research. At the same time, TUSD was looking for ways to enrich student learning. The partnership proved to be an ideal pairing and a win-win for the university and the school district.

“Every year, I get students with a range of abilities, including those who think they can’t do science,” says Ms. Hurley. “By the end of the year, most students realize that they can and are way better at it than they thought they were.”

In Ms. Hurley’s class, students can often be found outdoors engaging in hands-on, real-world science and making important discoveries about the world they live in. Students pick the research topic, design and conduct the project, document their observations, and share their findings in a poster presentation. In addition to studying changes in seasonality, students have measured and compared temperatures of the garden’s solar arrays versus those over the parking lot, how the shape of solar panels can affect what you plant and where, and whether rainwater collected from solar panels is better for watering plants.

TUSD is home to two agrivoltaics gardens, one on the shared campus of Rincon High School and University High School and the second at Manzo Elementary School. Both gardens are making science accessible to students, giving them opportunities to engage in outdoor learning and see answers come to life through hands-on research.

“Many aspects of our agrivoltaics work at UA fall in that sweet spot of being interesting and something that students can help us conduct,” explained Greg Barron-Gafford, associate director of the UA Community and School Garden Workshop.

“This collaboration allows us to crowdsource our science with an able, creative, and excited team of kids!”

At Manzo Elementary School, students use the agrivoltaics garden as an outdoor classroom where they are encouraged to think like scientists – to make observations, ask questions, and test things. On any given day, you can find students out in the garden taking measurements and tracking daily patterns for things such as soil moisture, temperature, relative humidity, incoming light, and wind speed. The young student scientists share their enthusiasm by leading tours of the school’s agrivolatics garden and showing the adults how to take measurements.

“Gardens have a way of developing how a student feels and sees themself,” said Greg Barron-Gafford. “Working in the garden feeds their natural curiosity and helps them develop self-confidence and an appreciation for their abilities to engage in science.”

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Students and Parents Spark Progress Toward 100% Clean Energy 

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

The harmful effects of climate change are already a daily reality in Miami, Florida, a city that grapples with having the country’s highest risk for hurricanes and sea-level rise. In 2019, a group of students and parents in Miami-Dade County Public Schools who were deeply concerned about climate change decided to step up to make sure their school, district, and state were taking serious action to protect their futures.

As a ninth grader, Thomas Brulay joined the Green Champions at his high school, Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy. The student-led group is working toward a goal of making their school the first zero-energy and zero-waste school in Florida. With support from parent Michele Drucker, a leader of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association, the Green Champions made huge strides toward this goal. The students secured a $40,000 grant from the Village of Key Biscayne to install a 26 kW solar array on the school’s PE field.

While they were making progress at their own school, they recognized that they needed to address the climate impacts of the entire district. As the fourth largest district in the country with 522 schools and over 350,000 students, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a sizeable footprint. The district spends $65 million per year on electricity, which is predominantly fueled by methane gas. With an ambitious vision to get their district to 100% clean energy, Michele, Thomas, and other climate advocates began working on plans to transform district policy and state legislation in support of their goal.

As Environmental Chair for the Miami-Dade County Council Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Michele drafted and introduced a resolution that called on the district to take urgent climate action and commit to 100% clean energy by 2030. In March 2021, 200 people attended a virtual meeting to show their support, and the PTA voted unanimously in favor of the groundbreaking resolution.

With the PTA’s endorsement and a groundswell of support from the community for climate action, the resolution was presented to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools School Board to officially adopt the 100% clean energy goal. At the April 21, 2021 school board meeting, Thomas was one of several students to speak in favor of the resolution. He told the board members: “You now have an opportunity to show tremendous leadership by becoming the first school district in the South to make such a bold commitment. A goal of 100% signals to students like me that you truly care about our future.” The school board unanimously passed the resolution, committing to a goal of 100% clean energy by 2030.

Right after the resolution passed, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would enable schools, municipalities, and tax-exempt nonprofit organizations to go solar with no upfront costs and make the transition to 100% clean energy affordable for the district. The Green Champions encouraged their school community and school board members to speak to their legislators about supporting the bill. Thomas started a petition and secured over 1,200 signatures in favor of the legislation. Michele wrote op-eds to newspapers and participated in advocacy events to garner public and legislator support. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass.

During the 2021–2022 school year, Michele served as vice chair of the district’s Clean Energy 2030 Task Force, which was commissioned by the school board to review current district sustainability measures and issue a report with an implementation plan and recommendations for moving forward. Based on the task force’s recommendations, the district is hiring its first Sustainability Director to lead the charge in achieving 100% clean energy.

Thomas graduated from MAST Academy in 2022 but remains firmly committed to clean energy advocacy. During his senior year, he continued to work toward getting his school to zero energy, meeting with solar developers and school board members about a plan for solar leasing and energy retrofits.

“What makes me the proudest is the amount of awareness on climate change and clean and renewable energy that now exists among students, parents, teachers, faculty, and board members in my community due to our advocacy and community work,” said Thomas. “Even school district leaders have realized that this issue is of great importance and are working hard to get our schools to become 100% net zero by 2030.”

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Lighting the Path to Solar Energy Careers

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

“I knew about renewable energy, but I never really understood how it worked or why it was important. The Renewable Energy Academy opened my eyes and introduced me to careers I didn’t know existed,” explains Kimberly, a high school junior in Denver Public Schools (DPS).

Kimberly was one of 12 student participants in the inaugural Renewable Energy Academy, which teaches high school students about careers in renewable energy and gives them an opportunity to gain basic solar installation skills needed to get hired in the solar industry. The four-week summer academy, held in June 2022, was a joint effort between DPS and GRID Alternatives Colorado, a nonprofit solar installer and industry trainer. Funding for the academy came from three-year grants that were awarded to DPS and GRID from Denver’s Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency Department for the promotion of green career pathways.

During the program, students received eight hours of mentoring from engineering and construction professionals, who shared their different career paths and provided guidance on career exploration and setting long-term goals. They went on site tours at Jack’s Solar Garden to learn about using solar fields for agriculture and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to participate in renewable energy demonstrations, and attended a workshop focused on electrician apprenticeship opportunities. They also completed a capstone project to design a sustainable city, an activity that enabled students to apply what they learned in the academy and practice soft skills like teamwork and communication that will serve them in the workplace.

A key feature of the Renewable Energy Academy was the opportunity for students to participate in GRID’s solar installation basic training (IBT Lab Lite) during the middle two weeks of the program. This 40-hour high school course taught construction basics, electricity fundamentals, solar system design and components, and 3D modeling, mostly through hands-on applications. Students learned how to use common hand and power tools, completed a solar installation on a mock ground-based roof array, wired a small, off-grid solar system, and engaged in labs to measure solar panel output. They also met with solar industry professionals who discussed their careers and the different career pathways available in solar.

After completing the IBT Lab Lite course, students received a certificate from GRID that demonstrates they have acquired the skills necessary for solar installation. This entry-level, industry-vetted training will give these high school students a head start in the solar industry and prepare them for internships and the next level of training required to enter the workforce. Once students turn 18, they can build on their high school training and participate in GRID’s adult solar training program. GRID also has an agreement with local solar industry partners who will recognize the certificate and consider those students for solar installation jobs at their companies.

All 12 students completed the IBT Lab Lite course, and 11 students completed the entire Renewable Energy Academy. After a successful first year, DPS and GRID look forward to offering the academy again next summer.

As for Kimberly, she plans to use her certificate to get a job in solar installation after high school. She wants to save money for college and is thinking about pursuing a career in solar design and installation or electrical engineering.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend the Renewable Energy Academy,” said Kimberly. “I learned so much and had a lot of fun too!”

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District Leadership Paves the Way to Electrification 

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

Pittsburg, California, located about 40 miles east of San Francisco, was historically known as Black Diamond, a nod to the nearby coal resources that supported the town’s economy. However, Pittsburg’s reliance on coal is shifting, and Pittsburg Unified School District (PUSD) is building a new reputation for the community as a leader in sustainability.

According to Superintendent Dr. Janet Shulze, PUSD’s success in transitioning to clean energy can be attributed to institutionalizing their goals and commitments at the school board level. In 2018, green school operations and energy and environmental resource management were codified as board policies. These policies hold PUSD leadership and staff accountable for meeting clean energy and sustainability goals, ensure that sustainability remains a priority regardless of changes in leadership, and help maintain a culture that supports implementing innovative clean energy projects.

PUSD’s clean energy efforts took off in 2011 with solar installations at 12 district campuses and its support center. With 3.49 MW of solar online, PUSD generates 90% of its electricity consumption from the sun. The solar installations are helping PUSD avoid energy costs of over $1 million per year, with lifetime cost savings of over $11 million. The district is now designing a new building for Parkside Elementary School that will become its first zero-energy school.

Transitioning to an electric vehicle (EV) fleet is another component of PUSD’s clean energy commitment. When Matthew Belasco, Director of Maintenance, Operations, and Transportation, assumed leadership of PUSD’s transportation department in 2017, he developed a plan to electrify its fleet of vehicles and school buses.

“When I watched the buses leave each day with big plumes of black smoke billowing out the back, it reminded me of seeing the same thing as a kid. I knew we could do better for our students. That really motivated me to electrify our fleet.”

Belasco secured funding for the first two electric school buses using a combination of grants and district money and leveraged PG&E’s pilot EV incentive program to cover costs for charging infrastructure. Currently, PUSD’s fleet includes four electric school buses and six EVs for student transportation and staff use. Belasco anticipates adding three more electric school buses in the fall of 2022. PUSD has also applied for grant funding to install 32 chargers at five schools to encourage staff to drive EVs. An additional 18 chargers at three more schools are expected to come online by the end of 2022.

Soon after Belasco began electrifying the fleet, he started to research battery storage. When he learned about how batteries can reduce energy costs by discharging power during peak load times and also provide backup power during grid outages, he was sold. “While we haven’t experienced any shutdowns due to grid failure, it can’t hurt to be over prepared. The ability to keep our schools open and running during a power failure ensures that there are no disruptions to teaching and learning.”

PUSD’s battery storage system is expected to be online in December 2022. The system will include 1.6 MW of a combination of two- and four-hour lithium batteries for a total of 3.0 megawatt-hours at 10 district campuses. As an early adopter, PUSD is able to take advantage of financial incentives offered through power delivery company MCE Energy and $1 million in energy infrastructure grants from PG&E. Models show PUSD could save $78,000 per year and an additional $50,000-$70,000 in incentives for the first five to seven years of operation.

PUSD’s districtwide commitment to sustainability is getting noticed. Several nearby school districts have visited to learn about its clean energy initiatives. In recent years, PUSD has been named a Green Ribbon School District with Gold Distinction by the California Department of Education and received leadership awards from Green California Schools and Community Colleges.

“My advice to other districts is to codify your sustainability practices and commitments as school board policy,” says Dr. Schulze. “Doing this gives staff the directive and encouragement to press forward and ensures these practices continue, regardless of changes in district leadership.”

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Leading the Charge Towards Resiliency

September 15, 2022

This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).

Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) serves nearly one-quarter of New Mexico’s public school students at 143 schools across a region spanning more than 1,200 square miles. The largest district in the state is costly to operate, and it initially turned to energy conservation and clean energy to reduce its burdensome utility bills. Now APS is at the forefront of clean energy deployment in the public school sector and boasts the most extensive battery storage system in New Mexico.

For the past decade, the APS Water and Energy Conservation Committee (WECC), which includes district leadership, municipal utility staff, and the state department of energy staff, has led the district to set and meet ambitious sustainability goals, such as reducing water and energy use by 20% over a 10-year period ending in the 2023–2024 school year. With WECC’s guidance, APS codified sustainability into school board policy and now requires that all new buildings are solar-ready, receive preliminary photovoltaic designs, and meet green building standards. The district’s pioneering efforts in sustainability now include a solar + battery storage project that will drastically reduce energy costs and provide resiliency during power disruptions.

This first-of-its-kind project is part of the Energy Storage for Social Equity Initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and Sandia National Laboratories and is jointly supported by New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resource Department, Clean Energy States Alliance, and Osceola Energy. The state’s largest high school, Atrisco Heritage Academy High School, was selected as the site for the solar + battery storage project due to its hefty utility bills, which can exceed $50,000 every month in the summer. More than half of Atrisco’s electricity bill comes from demand charges, which are based on the highest electricity use at any point during the month. The batteries can be used to discharge stored energy to the grid incrementally throughout the day to reduce those peaks (also known as peak shaving) to avoid demand charges and lower the electricity bill. The cost savings for this project are anticipated to be $3.5 million over 25 years.

APS broke ground on the solar + battery storage project in October 2021. The fully installed system will include 2,200 rooftop solar panels and a Tesla Megapack 2 battery with an energy storage capacity of 2,884 kWh. APS anticipates that the system will be operational by the end of 2022.

The next phase of the project is to evolve the battery system so it can be used for islanding – taking the building off the grid and using the battery to supply power for designated areas. The ability to keep school buildings operational when the grid goes down would ensure that students can stay in school for learning, meals, and other essential services. Atrisco serves a population where 14% of students live in households below the federal poverty line and nearly all students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The campus has an onsite community health clinic and is often used as a community gathering space. A resilient school campus would provide numerous benefits to students and the community.

APS is currently working on an implementation plan and a cost analysis so when the time comes to enter this next phase, the district will be ready. The battery system would be designed to provide backup power to an area of campus that includes large spaces where people can congregate in an emergency or during a grid outage, such as the gym, library, and cafeteria. This project will be a pilot for rolling out similar projects at other district schools.

“At APS, we’re creating a culture within the district and the community that promotes and values sustainability,” says Anthony Sparks, APS Project Manager and WECC team member. “As the largest district in the state, we want to set a good example and do groundbreaking work so smaller districts can implement similar projects and not be afraid to do so.”

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School district aims to produce more clean energy than it consumes

May 17, 2022

This story was originally written for the Powering a Brighter Future in Pennsylvania; a 2022 report on solar at Pennsylvania K-12 schools.

Midd-West School District, a small district serving 2,100 students at four schools in the Middleburg Borough in rural, central Pennsylvania, currently holds the title for the largest school district solar array in the state. But it is not stopping there. Solar installations offset 95% of the districtwide electricity costs. Midd-West is planning to add more solar panels to offset 110% of its electricity use with solar and to generate additional revenue by selling the excess energy back to the grid.

Midd-West saw the value of energy savings in 2013 when it implemented a comprehensive energy efficiency strategy at West Snyder Elementary School, such as swapping all the lighting to LEDs and switching from coal-powered heating to a geothermal energy system. The success of those cost-saving upgrades prompted the district to consider the potential opportunity to go solar and find more operational savings.

A school board member, who was pursuing a solar energy system at home, helped initiate the process of bringing a solar array to the district to save on operating expenses. Midd-West issued a bid for the district’s solar project in 2019, and the two solar arrays (totaling 2.56 MW) were installed and operational by November 2020. The main array (2.1 MW) at Middleburg Elementary School covers 6 acres behind the main school complex and athletic fields. The 1.25 acre array (460 kW) installed at West Snyder Elementary brings the district closer to its goal of having a zero energy building. If the district expands its solar installation to offset 100% of its electricity consumption with onsite clean energy, then the elementary school’s only remaining fossil fuel sources would be the propane it uses to fuel kitchen appliances and backup generators.

Midd-West School District in Middleburg, PA. Credit: Greenworks Development

Midd-West was able to go solar with no upfront capital investment by utilizing a 28-year power service agreement (PSA) designed for the project by GreenWorks Development. In this third-party ownership arrangement, the customer makes monthly contract service payments for the use of the solar system.  The district pays an average estimated solar-generated electricity cost of $0.037 per kilowatt-hour over the project term, and it receives 100% of the electricity cost savings and the value of the Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) generated by the system.

The district’s solar project provides predictable low-cost energy that reduces operational costs now and protects against rising electricity costs in the future. The energy savings enables the district to stretch its budget further and invest more into critical resources and services for students. To date, Midd- West has been saving $145,000 on its annual electric bill, and the annual savings will increase as the utility rates rise. After the fifth year of operation, the district will have the option to purchase the system using 100% financing, which is expected to further increase the cash flow to the district.

The current 2.6 MW solar installation is estimated to save the district more than $9 million over the 40-year life expectancy of the solar panels. Midd-West is planning to add 437 kW of solar, at no upfront cost to the district, in order to reach 110% electricity offset. That addition would increase the estimated 40-year project savings by another $2.3 million.

Solar Project Highlights

  • Location: Middleburg, PA
  • District Size: 2,100 students at 4 schools
  • Installed Capacity: 2.56 MW – The largest solar installation at a K-12 school in PA
  • Structure: 6,268 bifacial solar panels across two ground- mounted arrays of 2.1 MW and 460 kW
  • Energy Offset: Currently 95% of the district’s annual energy use and moving toward 110% energy offset
  • Cost Savings: $9 million estimated over 40 years
  • Financing: 28-year third-party power service agreement (PSA) with GreenWorks Development with option for system buyout after 5 years
Blog

Philadelphia students prepare for their Bright Solar Futures

May 17, 2022

This story was originally written for the Powering a Brighter Future in Pennsylvania, a 2022 report on solar at Pennsylvania K-12 schools. Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Energy Authority

Pennsylvania has been ranked as a top state for solar employment growth since 2015, and the state has a need to develop a stream of trained solar workers to fill these positions. Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), an independent body established in 2010 to leverage clean energy as a tool for economic development, stepped up to the challenge along with the School District of Philadelphia in developing a new generation of diverse solar workers in the area. In 2019, PEA provided introductory solar trainings to two cohorts of high school students to pilot elements of a new solar curriculum. This laid the groundwork to establish a first-of-its-kind Solar Career and Technical Education (CTE) program to help meet Philadelphia’s demand for a trained solar workforce. 

Through the Bright Solar Futures program, we are building a diversified clean energy workforce – one that provides an on-ramp to meaningful careers for populations that are traditionally excluded from the clean, green economy and yet most burdened by the high cost of energy inefficiencies. These…learning opportunities are about bringing new communities into the work of addressing climate change.”
– Shonique Banks, Pennsylvania Energy Authority, Director of Development and Workforce Initiatives

In Fall 2020, the Bright Solar Futures program was launched to provide young people in Philadelphia with the skills they need to fill solar jobs. The three-year CTE program, spanning 10th to 12th grade, engages students in 1,080 hours of class time to prepare them to earn the credentials required to become a solar installer, one of the fastest-growing jobs in the nation. The development of the Bright Solar Futures program was funded by a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is implemented in collaboration with a network of partners, including Solar States and YouthBuild Philly.

The program introduces students to all aspects of work in the solar industry: sales, design, and the technical components of installation. Instruction takes place at Frankford High School, where the recent opening of a state-of-the-art solar training lab represents a milestone in Pennsylvania’s equitable transition to clean energy. In addition to hands-on training in the lab, the students go on field trips to multiple solar sites and participate in paid summer internships.

The Bright Solar Futures program equips students with a marketable vocational skills, along with the confidence to pursue future clean energy careers. Upon graduation, students are prepared to earn three key industry credentials: OSHA10, which is required for any construction work; the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP®) Associate Credential, essential for applying to entry-level solar jobs; and the Construction and Skilled Trades Selection System (CAST) credential, required for some utility jobs. 

Twenty students were actively enrolled in the program during the 2021-22 school year, and ten more 9th graders signed up for 2022-23, with the first graduating class expected in 2023. By connecting clean energy to the classroom, the Bright Solar Futures program jumpstarts careers for those who are positioned to benefit the most and grows the clean energy workforce of tomorrow. PEA has plans to scale the Bright Solar Futures program statewide and is packaging the curriculum so that it is easy for other school districts to replicate. 

This program has enabled [students] to take control of their future in a way that will have a positive impact on their community and their environment…. Having a meaningful career path to work toward that pays well has given many of the solar energy technology students a sense of direction and a reason to try in school.”
Jordan Crolly, School District of Philadelphia, Solar Energy Technology Teacher

Pennsylvania Energy Authority has also worked with the School District of Philadelphia to bring solar energy systems to its campuses and reduce the hefty $45 million electricity bill that it pays each year. In 2019, a PEA study analyzed the solar potential of four schools in the district and found that the district could install 1.1 MW of solar on four buildings that would offset around 45% of the total electricity consumption at those schools. This has the potential to save the district over $1.8 million year-by-year for electricity.