Stronger, Faster, Cheaper: Clean energy makes the military better

September 15, 2021

Thinking about going electric on your next vehicle purchase? So is the American military. Recently, the Army kicked the tires on an all-electric version of its Infantry Squad Vehicle, and it’s investing $50 million  over the next year on ways to get around without fossil fuel.

Beyond electric vehicles, a move to clean energy is underway across the U.S. Armed Forces, including solar installations, microgrids, and alternative fuels. Military leaders have long recognized that dependence on fossil fuels is a security risk at home and a deadly liability on the battlefield. Thousands  of casualties, for example, have been attributed to attacks on fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We also happen to have an administration that recognizes the climate crisis as a national security risk. As he took office in January, President Biden signed an executive order declaring that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.”

But even back when the election of Donald Trump sent a dark cloud over the world of clean energy, the military was soldiering on with projects such as solar arrays on U.S. bases and an all-electric warship, the USS Zumwalt. After all, the Department of Defense (DoD) accounts for more than three-quarters of the entire federal government’s energy consumption, and it has a goal to reach 25% renewable energy by 2025. Judging from its most recent report on energy, the agency is a little more than halfway there.

The USS Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy’s largest and most advanced stealth destroyer.

And like the rest of us, the DoD is looking for ways to save on energy—its annual energy budget exceeds $3 billion—and be more resilient in the face of power disruptions. The department saw more utility outages lasting longer than eight hours in fiscal year 2019 compared to the year before, according to its energy management report, and outages of all lengths cost the agency more than $4 million .

Given these large bills, installing renewable energy makes both strategic and financial sense. At Fort Hood in Texas, switching to solar and wind power—which now supply about 45% of the site’s energy—saved $2.5 million in the first year alone. And DoD is testing microgrids backed up by robust batteries on a replica base at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory dubbed Fort Renewable.

Switching to solar and wind power saved Fort Hood $2.5 million in the first year alone.

So, when it comes to remaking its energy supply, DoD is working on it… but more needs to be done.

“Let’s be clear. We’re behind,” Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley told DefenseNews last year, referring specifically to the electric vehicle transition. “All of the various nations that we work with, they’re all going to electric power with their automotive fleet, and right now, although we do [science and technology] and we’ve got some research and development going on and we can build prototypes, in terms of a transition plan, we are not there.”

U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Robert G. Sutton (L) and Corporal Moses E. Perez, field wireman with Combat Logistics Regiment 15 install new solar panels on Combat Outpost Shukvani, Helmand province, Afghanistan, November 19, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Alexander Quiles/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

With hundreds  of bases operating worldwide and many tactical and security considerations, it’s not surprising that the DoD isn’t converting to clean energy at warp speed. But with an annual budget exceeding $705 billion and more than a million troops, few organizations are better positioned to push the envelope on energy. Former military energy advisers Michael Wu and Jon Powers argue the agency should, among other things, establish an Office of Energy Innovation that would focus on “electrifying the tactical edge,” which could include ships and aircraft. 

This last bit—the tough-to-electrify sectors like flight and marine transport—is where the military could really help move the world away from dirty fuels. Military innovation tends to make its way into the civilian realm. (Duct tape? Who knew!)  Yes, that includes the Humvee, which begat the gas-guzzling Hummer.

But in the future, our armed forces could be a seedbed for cleaner travel and more resilient electricity strategies that benefit all of us.


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


Solar: why everybody and their uncle are doing it (or should be)

May 27, 2020

If your house is among the 80 percent of American homes that are “solar viable” (according to Google’s Project Sunroof), now might actually be a smart time to start powering your home with sunshine. No, we’re not being naïve about the state of the economy or the cash crunch many American households are facing.

The truth is, more and more people are going solar with no money down—and saving money on their electric bill from day one. What is this dark (er…light) magic, you ask? Residential solar technology—and the industry that deploys it—have driven costs down to the point where powering your home with the sun’s energy can, for many homeowners, be cheaper than buying electricity from ye olde utility. As for the no-money-down part, solar owners are increasingly taking advantage of financing methods (like solar loans and solar leases/PPAs) that have become commonplace around the country.

With a solar loan, many homeowners can basically swap out some or all of their monthly electricity bill with a (lower) solar loan payment. A solar company installs a system on your home at little-to-no upfront cost and then you finance the system over time. No forking over cash for panels or installation, and in some cases, you pay nothing for a whole year. And, because you own the solar system, you can still benefit from the federal tax credit for solar (which saves folks an average of $9,000) and other state, municipal, and utility incentives.

cartoon showing woman talking on phone about solar.

Think solar loans sound risky? They’re not. In 2019, the majority of customers paid for their installations using a loan—and they’ve become a popular alternative to outright cash payments for solar.

A second affordable financing route is a solar power purchase agreement (PPA) or solar lease. Like a solar loan, PPAs and leases require no upfront cost, and you don’t pay for the panels or the installation. Unlike a solar loan—in which you ultimately own the installation—under a PPA or lease, a third party owns and maintains the system on your home, while you commit to pay a fixed amount per unit of energy produced (or a fixed monthly payment, in the case of a lease). Just like a loan, though, you’re cutting your monthly electricity bill and hanging on to your cash.

Over half of U.S. states permit solar PPAs and leases, so there’s a good chance that zero percent-down solar is an option for your home.

Live in one of the green-colored states? If not, you should probably call your legislators and (respectfully) give them a piece of your mind. (graphic credit:

The other big option is to pay cash for a rooftop system. The cost for an average-sized installation usually ranges from $11,000 to $15,000 after solar tax credits. Check also for municipal and/or utility incentives applicable to your home.

If you’re still thinking “all very cool—probably won’t work for my home, though,” then you might have missed our opening sentence: according to Google’s Project Sunroof, four out of five homes in the U.S. are “solar viable” (meaning that there’s enough unshaded area for solar panels). It’s also incredibly easy (and free) to have a solar installer assess your home’s potential.

Solar can now be an affordable investment on almost any budget—even during tough economic times. By powering our homes with the sun, we can untether ourselves from fossil fuels, save money, and take part in the transition to a clean energy future. All in all, it’s getting harder to find a good excuse not to go solar.

Originally published in the 5/27/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


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