Energy & Education: A Climate Plan for K-12 Schools

September 22, 2021

We talk a lot about the role we all must play in tackling the climate crisis. There’s no shortage of work to be done, and no time for anyone to sit out—including the education sector. 

K-12 schools have a hefty environmental footprint. Approximately 100,000 public K-12 schools sit on 2 million acres of land and are one of the largest public energy consumers. They also operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country, using 480,000 school buses. Schools also serve over 7 billion meals each year and generate 530,000 tons of food waste.

Recognizing that K-12 schools can play a key role in large-scale climate solutions, the Aspen Institute launched the K12 Climate Action initiative last fall. The project brings together education, environment, youth, civil rights leaders, and others to help elevate climate as a priority issue and create a comprehensive action plan to address climate change in the U.S. by leveraging the power of the education sector. Generation180 was one of the organizations in the coalition supporting this work.

Four Pillars of Climate Action

The K12 Climate Action Plan identifies four pillars of climate action: mitigation, adaptation, education, and advancement of equity.


There are many strategies highlighted in the action plan that schools can use to lower their environmental footprints and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include reducing energy consumption from buildings, switching to electric school buses, minimizing and composting food waste, and improving water efficiency. 

Aspen’s K12 action plan featured Generation180 data about the collective potential of schools to reduce their impact by using solar energy. Our research found that by the start of 2020, there were 6,839 solar public K-12 schools in the U.S., with a 144% growth rate in the last five years. Yet, only 7% of public schools currently use solar energy. About half of all states allow power purchase agreements, which enable third-party ownership and minimize upfront costs, enabling schools to reinvest into teacher pay and their students. Generation180 is beginning to broaden our work to help schools address the largest source of carbon emissions in this country: transportation. Ninety-four percent of school buses are powered by diesel engines, which create air pollution, harm student health, and impact academic performance and absenteeism. Students of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, contributing to higher rates of asthma and other health issues. Electrifying school buses saves schools money (a whopping $170,000 in lifetime savings), and helps students breathe cleaner air.


The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear how school disruptions affect all communities. The increasingly widespread impacts of climate change are also interrupting student learning and harming student health. Schools can play a pivotal role in helping our communities adapt. Schools that adopt more resilient infrastructure — such as solar + battery storage microgrids,  which allow schools to retain key functions when other buildings lose power — can be critical community hubs for providing shelter and other services during an emergency.


Educators have an opportunity to prepare the next generation to be better equipped to address climate change and succeed in the clean energy economy. All subjects can be connected to climate change to support teaching and learning about sustainability, the environment, and green jobs,—and to empower students to advance climate solutions.

For example, the NYC DOE, the largest school system in the nation, prepares its 1.1 million students for a future powered by clean energy through more than 250 solar projects that allow for hands-on, STEM learning opportunities for students.

Advancing Equity

The action plan recommends that school districts develop and implement comprehensive K-12 climate action plans. To keep equity in focus, the action plans must ensure the voices of communities most impacted by climate change are central to decision-making, including students. 

Many districts around the country have already worked to prioritize sustainability and serve as models for climate action, such as Stockton Unified School District and Middlesex County Public Schools.

All Hands on Deck

Just like group projects in school require collaboration in order to succeed, so does this action plan.

The K-12 plan outlines policy recommendations at the local, state, and federal levels, including proposing that governments at all levels help schools create and implement their own individual climate action plans. Governments can also provide financial and technical support to help schools invest in clean energy solutions, like solar and electric buses. Interagency coordination is a critical piece of the K-12 climate action puzzle.

By mobilizing the education sector to prioritize and implement climate solutions, we can build lasting change to advance a more equitable, sustainable future for today’s students.

Want to learn more about how we seize this opportunity to transform our energy system and education system? Read the full K-12 action report here.


Back to School with Solar: Mascoutah School District 19 Shares their Solar Journey

August 25, 2021

We’re kicking off back-to-school season by hosting a virtual event with CollectiveSun. Join us on Wednesday, August 25th at 2:00 pm ET/11:00 am PT to hear about the solar success story of a small Illinois school district.

Craig Fiegel, Superintendent of Mascoutah School District 19, will share how his students and community are benefitting from the switch to solar. Learn how a school board member became a champion for solar after he saw the benefits of having solar on his own home.

Hear from CollectiveSun about its innovative financing that allowed the district to leverage the federal tax credit and save on the purchase of their solar energy system.


A surprising—and essential—ally during emergencies: solar schools

July 22, 2020

Schools grappling with how to plan for optimal learning and safety for students returning this fall should also consider a long-term investment that stands to benefit students and entire communities: solar power. By outfitting educational buildings with energy tech that can operate off-grid, schools can mitigate the effects of natural disasters and other emergencies for both their students and their neighborhoods. Here are some examples of how communities all over the country are already doing it:

  1. Schools outfitted with solar + storage can be a failsafe against power outages. School districts of all sizes are investing in solar systems that enable them to generate clean power at little-to-no upfront cost, and some schools are taking things a step further by installing batteries that can store this energy for later use. After Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, cutting off power for up to six months, donors raised funds to install solar microgrids—basically a solar array, energy storage, and an energy management system—at 10 institutions to provide grid support and serve communities. In the rural town of Tenino in Washington state, the regional utility is installing the area’s first large-scale microgrid, using solar panels on the high school, to provide back-up power when needed. Utilities in Colorado and Santa Barbara, California, are also exploring solar microgrids at schools in anticipation of shutoffs triggered by wildfires and other extreme weather events.
  2. Since 2012, the SunSmart E-Shelters Program in Florida has provided more than 100 public schools with small-scale solar systems and batteries to keep lights and electrical outlets operating so residents can seek refuge in the buildings during disasters. The solar-powered shelters, which can accommodate up to 500 people per school, proved their value after Hurricane Irma hit the state in fall 2017.
  3. In New Jersey, a solar + storage system at Hopewell Valley Central High School allows the school to serve as a warming or cooling station for displaced residents while also powering food refrigeration and emergency lighting.
  4. One of the best examples of designing for community resilience is in Salinas, California, where in 2018 Santa Rita Unified School District became the first district in the country to have 100 percent solar + storage at every school. The six microgrids—installed with no money down—can provide up to seven hours of electricity per battery charge, allowing students to shelter in place during blackouts so they don’t lose educational time. The microgrids also enable schools to serve as powered emergency response centers, or PERCs, that provide key services such as cell phone and electric vehicle charging, medical and triage support, and incident command centers in addition to emergency sheltering. “We have the immediate benefit that every single day, these kids will stay in school and learn,” said Ted Flanigan, president of EcoMotion, which oversaw the project. “And then… in the event of a major emergency, these schools would become huge community assets.”
  5. Schools can also help significantly reduce carbon emissions for the community – not just the school system. In California, Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego is adding battery storage at several sites to save on utility costs and to enable the schools to serve as virtual power plants that the local utility can tap into instead of (polluting) natural gas plants. Across Hawaii, some 1,267 classrooms are being cooled with “solar + storage” systems, helping districts save money and avoid expensive retrofits to central air systems.
Solar canopy at Hopewell Valley High School
The solar installation at Hopewell Valley HS (credit: Advanced Solar Products)

To finance solar + storage, most schools opt for a power purchase agreement (PPA), in which a third party purchases, owns, and maintains the solar panels (and often the batteries), and the school or district agrees to buy the electricity produced for the length of the agreement, often 25+ years. PPAs are popular because a school can install solar with little-to-no upfront investment or ongoing maintenance costs, and typically pays a lower electricity rate. In the case of the Florida E-Shelters, the schools received the systems at no cost because the program received $10 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in addition to funding from private and public utilities.

Given the many benefits of installing solar on schools—and the favorable financing options available—it’s hard to argue against adding both solar AND energy storage. In times of uncertainty, schools can reduce their energy footprints (and costs) while keeping students learning and providing critical support during emergencies. With little-to-no upfront cost, millions in savings, and a boost to community resilience, it’s a no brainer.


There’s a nationwide school budget crisis. Solar can help.

June 17, 2020

Shortly after this article was published in 2020, Generation180 released its national study on solar adoption at U.S. K12 schools, which found that the amount of solar installed on nationwide schools grew by nearly 2.5X from 2015 through 2019.  The study found that 79% of those solar projects were funded through third-party ownership with minimal to no upfront capital costs. Tucson Unified School District in Arizona is a district that has installed solar on nearly 90 schools and expects to save $43 million over 20 years.

As the fallout from COVID continues to bulldoze through the economy, you’ve probably heard about the massive cuts to school budgets across the U.S. This means not only less money for buildings and equipment, but fewer dollars spent per student and sharp cuts in staffing and teacher pay. By one estimate, if states slash their education spending by 15 percent, schools could be forced to eliminate more than 300,000 teaching positions, or nearly one-tenth of the country’s K-12 teacher force. No joke.

Fortunately, thousands of U.S. schools are already modeling a smart solution for tight budgets: going solar. Energy costs are the second largest expense for schools after personnel. By installing solar panels, these forward-thinking institutions are saving millions of dollars in utility bills and using the extra cash to invest in teachers, build playgrounds, and create new curricula.

Energy costs are the second largest expense for schools after personnel.

What’s more, most schools going solar these days are doing so with little-to-no up-front costs—thanks to a key financing mechanism: the power purchase agreement (PPA). In this arrangement, a third-party installs, owns, and maintains the solar panels, while the school simply agrees to buy the electricity the panels produce.

All this sound too good to be true? Consider this success story from Generation180’s upcoming national report on solar schools: Hamilton Southeastern Schools in the rapidly growing suburb of Fishers, Indiana, previously spent $4 million annually on electricity across the district’s 22 schools. After installing solar on three schools, it now reaps around $310,000 a year in savings. Among other things, the revenue has supported two new playgrounds and a classroom curriculum to help students get excited about STEM and renewable energy. Bigger districts are benefiting as well. Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia—the 10th largest school district in the country—is part of a large municipal solar project encompassing over 100 sites that is expected to save $60 million over 25 years.

Batesville School District’s ground-mounted solar installation (credit: Batesville School District)

For at least one school we interviewed for the same upcoming report, teacher salaries were the driving force in the decision to go solar. Three years ago, Batesville School District in Independence County, Arkansas, was paying $607,203 annually in utilities and ranked fourth out of five districts in its county for teacher pay. After the district installed enough solar panels to cover half of its electricity needs, utility bills dropped to 30-40 percent of previous levels. Much of the savings has gone to teachers: Batesville now ranks first in teacher pay of the five districts, providing average salary increases of $2,000 to $3,000 a year. “Putting money into staff is the best way to put students first,” said district superintendent Michael Hester.

To finance solar, most schools opt for a power purchase agreement (PPA), in which a third party purchases, owns, and maintains the solar panels, and the school or district agrees to buy the electricity produced by the solar energy system for the length of the agreement, often 25+ years. PPAs are popular because a school can install solar with little-to-no upfront investment or ongoing maintenance costs, and typically pays a lower electricity rate. Although not all states allow for third-party ownership of school property (yet!), things are changing quickly. Alternatively, schools that own their solar systems outright often can (through net metering) apply the “credits” they earn from generating solar power over the summer to their electricity bills in the winter, adding to the savings.

Cartoon showing the sun at a chalkboard teaching a classroom full of students

Chances are, you’re in a school district that’s facing budget cuts. And it’s a good bet that Uncle Sam (or Auntie DeVos) won’t be swooping in to help anytime soon. The $2 trillion CARES Act recently provided K-12 schools with more than $13 billion in emergency funding, but districts face hurdles in using the money, and it isn’t nearly enough to stem the bleeding. Right now, going solar might be the best option our schools have to boost revenues and support their own “essential workers.” Fortunately, it’s a darn good one. 

Thanks to tech innovation and industry growth, solar on schools (and homes, businesses, and other public buildings) just makes common sense now. It’s a win for budgets, students, the public health of the communities they serve, regional job growth, and the clean energy future we’re all working to secure.

Originally published in the 6/17/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Students Working Towards a Brighter Future

March 23, 2020

Meet our three student interns who are already rising stars in solar

Successfully advocating for solar at one of the largest school districts in the country. Designing a solar-powered light show attended by 14,000 people. Creating an interactive website that estimates the solar potential of schools across the country. These are just a few personal achievements of Generation180’s three distinguished solar research interns.  

Lindsay Asmussen, Kahaan Gandhi, and Adam O’Neill are high school and college students who have been contributing to the Solar For All Schools campaign this semester by collecting and analyzing national data about solar adoption by U.S. K-12 schools for Generation180’s 2022 Brighter Future report coming out this fall. These research internships are part of Generation180’s new collaboration with FedEx to help scale solar adoption at schools nationwide.

Read on to learn more about their early experiences with solar and what inspired their interest in clean energy.


Kahaan Gandhi

Kahaan Gandhi is only a senior in high school, but he has already developed his own solar analysis that estimates and ranks the nation’s K-12 schools by solar potential and published it on the website He did all of this as a side project outside of school.

As a lifelong vegetarian who cares about animals, Kahaan Gandhi felt a natural pull toward environmental issues. At Menlo High School, he joined the climate coalition environmental club. “I had a great biology teacher that did a lot of environmental projects that inspired me,” he said.

“After attending an elementary, middle, and high school that were all solar-powered, solar just felt familiar to me. It felt like something I could make an impact in.” — Kahaan Gandhi

While quarantined during the pandemic last year, Kahaan felt he needed to do something important with his extra free time. He started researching solar on schools and came across publicly available solar data from the Global Solar Atlas, which he initially used to inform his personal research project. After coming across Generation180’s Brighter Future report during his online research, Kahaan reached out to Solar For All Schools Director, Tish Tablan to learn more.

According to Kahaan, “Generation180’s research shows where solar currently resides on schools, and my project shows where solar should be on schools, but isn’t.” He wanted to add context to Generation180’s data on how much solar is installed at schools and show how far we have left to go. Kahaan developed his own methodology to estimate and rank the solar potential of all of the nation’s K-12 schools. He made his research available on a new website, where viewers can look up the solar potential of an individual school and find the top ten schools in each state for solar potential. He hopes the research will encourage schools and local governments to consider the benefits of solar.  His work is already catching the attention of his community and was featured in a recent profile piece by his local newspaper.

After he published his research project, Generation180 invited Kahaan to apply for a summer internship with the organization and continue researching solar adoption by schools.  “I’ve loved the welcoming atmosphere of Generation180. I’m working alongside people with much more experience in the field. I’ve learned so much about data searching and validation,” he said.

Kahaan will be attending Harverford College in Pennsylvania in the fall, but he isn’t sure yet what he wants to study next year. Kahaan said, “I know I want to do something that I can apply to the environmental field. I’m planning to sample a variety of courses and future out what resonates with me.”


Lindsay Asmussen

Lindsay Asmussen is currently a junior at the University of Virginia, where she is studying global environments and sustainability and foreign affairs.  “I think the policy behind renewable energy is really interesting,” she said. 

Lindsay Asmussen has always been interested in STEM and the environment. “I grew up next to Frying Pan Farm Park in Reston, Virginia surrounded by woods. Living in and being so connected to nature in my youth has influenced everything about me,” she said. 

As a junior at South Lakes High School, Lindsay joined Solar on the Schools–a student-led group working with the Sierra Club to help greenlight solar on Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), the 11th largest district in the country.  The student group successfully petitioned the FCPS school board to have all district schools assessed for their solar potential. In December 2019, the county government committed to adding solar to 113 municipal buildings, including 87 schools, as a result of years of student advocacy. This commitment could potentially yield over $60 million in electricity cost avoidance over the terms of the contracts.

Despite this win, the student advocates had more work to do to remove legal hurdles that would prevent the district from being able to access the funding it needed to go solar. So Lindsay and her fellow students met with their state delegate, attended hearings at the Virginia Senate, and urged legislators to pass the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) in early 2020. Lindsay spoke up for a bill that removed the cost barriers for her district and cleared the way for communities across the state to be able to install solar with no upfront costs. Lindsay is looking forward to seeing the first of these solar projects completed in her community.   

Lindsay said, “I was incredibly excited to start working for Generation180 so that I could experience the solar industry through the lens of a non-profit company. I had previous work in the federal government at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which allowed me to see all the levels of government that must be involved in order to get anything done. I wanted to have a different experience in the solar industry…outside of the government. I hope that working closely with such a passionate staff will allow me to find my place in the solar industry, wherever it may be.”

“I’m still deciding what I want to do in the future, but I know I want to work in the energy sector in some way. It’s really important to me to be influencing change.” — Lindsay Asmussen


Adam O’Neill

Adam O’Neill grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia in the Tidewater region, an area surrounded by water. “I’ve lived my life between two rivers,” he says. As sea levels rise, more of the region will be underwater, and that has influenced how Adam sees the world. 

Adam is a senior studying civil engineering at UVA, where he is currently president of the Charlottesville Solar Club. Last year, Adam took on a challenge that combined his passions for both clean energy  and engineering. The club decided to design a solar array to power UVA’s “Lighting of the Lawn” ceremony, an annual 20-minute light show that was started to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. “It’s a big symbol of hope for the community,” said Adam. 

The club met weekly with professional solar installers to learn how to create the solar array. “We had to learn to build the entire thing ourselves, which included many practice runs. It took a long time to get the exact voltage right on the battery, and we spent hours re-configuring it. Finally, the night before the light show, we were able to get it right.  We worked with the UVA facilities management department to install it on the Rotunda… I was holding my breath the whole time. It was euphoric to see it work with no hiccups,” he said. The first solar-powered light show at UVA was enjoyed by a crowd of 14,000 attendees from the university and greater Charlottesville community. 

Through the solar club, he has also been working with a local teacher to educate students about the benefits of solar. During the pandemic, he led a virtual presentation to middle schoolers about the threat of climate change and the benefits of clean energy.

“I think I’ll get out what I put into this internship with Generation180. I believe the more I apply myself, the more I will learn. I hope to gain a deeper sense of responsibility and respect for the people behind the clean energy movement. As an engineer, it’s easy to put my head down and worry about numbers. But to see the stories of the real lives that solar affects is humbling and exciting,” said Adam.

Last summer, Adam worked on the sales team for a residential solar company, using his knowledge of solar to knock on doors and explain the benefits of rooftop solar to homeowners in Virginia. After graduation, Adam has a job lined up at a civil engineering consulting firm where he will focus on utility-scale solar planning.

“It feels like climate change is a responsibility of my generation. I want to pursue a career in clean energy and sustainable development that will enable me to build and improve things.” — Adam O’Neill


Urge Lawmakers to Support the Virginia Clean Economy Act

March 3, 2020

Guest post by Elizabeth Doerr and Cheryl Burke—school board members for Richmond Public Schools.

As mothers and school board members for Richmond Public schools (RPS), the welfare of children and our community is always on our minds. Every day we are working to maintain a climate in our schools that keeps our children safe and provides the resources they need to thrive in the future. Outside of our school buildings, we are facing a climate crisis that is threatening our global climate and our ability to provide our children the resources they need to thrive in the future.

We have a tremendous opportunity right now in Virginia to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. The Virginia Clean Economy Act is a comprehensive energy bill being presently considered by the General Assembly. This bill lays out a clear plan with enforceable benchmarks to get Virginia to a 100% clean energy standard by 2050. We are calling on you take action by speaking up for this landmark legislation that can help all of us, especially our youth, secure a brighter, healthier future. Together, we can achieve the bold vision of 100% clean energy that has already been outlined by Governor Northam.

Richmond Public Schools superintendent, school board members, and students
Elizabeth Doerr and Cheryl Burke with the teacher and students who advocated for solar at RPS celebrating the solar project completion.

How Solar Is Benefitting Richmond

Our school community has gained so much by joining in this transition to a carbon-neutral future. RPS currently has bragging rights to the biggest solar installation on a school district in Virginia.  With nearly 3 megawatts of solar installed on ten school rooftops, our impact is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 496 homes’ electricity use each year.

Going solar not only helped our district be better stewards of the planet, but also of the community’s tax dollars. Through a power purchase agreement with Secure Futures Solar, the solar project had no upfront cost to the district. In fact, we will be saving $2 million in electricity costs over the next 20 years. This project also came with a supporting grant from the Community Foundation of Richmond that enabled us to purchase additional energy monitoring devices and to fund a Sustainability Coordinator to work full time with RPS staff on going green.

A group of motivated elementary students and teachers came to the school board with a request to go solar on their schools. We are extremely proud that we found a way to say yes to them. Our solar panels signal to our students that we are looking out for their futures both inside and outside of the classroom. The technology is now being utilized by students at all different levels.

All eighth grade science teachers throughout the district received a professional development training and materials to help them incorporate solar energy lessons in the classroom. One high school class used the real-time data generated on the rooftops to participate in a collaborative research project with the Science Museum of Richmond, Secure Futures Solar, and students from Augusta County.

Expanding Access to the Rest of Virginia

Many other districts are ‘seeing the light’ and catching on to how solar can benefit their schools. According to nonprofit Generation180, the number of K-12 schools in Virginia that have gone solar has tripled since 2017. Other school districts are making plans to go solar and reap the same financial and education benefits we have received.  However, their plans are now on hold due to utility roadblocks that can only be removed with new legislation passed by the General Assembly.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (SB 851/HB 1526) would not only remove those barriers to solar, but it will create numerous benefits for all Virginians. The bill’s plan for moving us to 100% clean energy will spur economic growth, create thousands of in-state jobs, reduce electric bills with energy efficiency, and mitigate the impacts of climate change that we are already facing now.

We hope you will all join us now in contacting your state legislators to ask for their support of the Virginia Clean Economy Act.  This is our last chance to speak up before the General Assembly session ends on March 7.

Our children and future generations are counting on us.

Use Generation180’s tool to contact your legislator and voice your support for this crucial clean energy policy.


Primary blog photo credit: Secure Futures, LLC