The Unique Role of Schools in the Renewable Revolution
We all know the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate because of greenhouse gas emissions from our use of fossil fuels, and that it will have dire consequences for all of us, especially for future generations, unless we act now to stop it. Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, one that will shape the lives of young people all around the world.
But when trouble strikes, superheroes rise to the occasion. In this case, our heroes are an unexpected, “Avengers”-like team of school board members, administrators, concerned parents, and youth activists making their voices heard.
The Big Bad they are fighting? Inefficient, fossil fuel-powered energy use by schools. Their Infinity Gauntlet (just go with it)? Solar panels.
As solar becomes a more financially viable option for powering buildings, more and more schools are making the move toward renewables and installing panels on their rooftops or property.
Schools and Energy Use
According to Energy Star, “The nation’s 17,450 K-12 school districts spend more than $6 billion annually on energy — more than is spent on computers and textbooks combined. As much as 30 percent of a district’s total energy is used inefficiently or unnecessarily.”
To mitigate those inefficiencies, schools can start to more effectively manage their energy use by making better choices with what they already have at their disposal as well as changing behaviors. Things like turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, turning off computers at night, adjusting the thermostat, and even gearing down vending machines and hot water heaters on weekends or during extended vacation periods can save an individual school thousands of dollars a year.
There are also many co-benefits when schools turn attention to lowering energy use. By showing our children how important energy efficiency and doing our part to protect the planet from climate change are to us, we also let them know we care about their health and future. And happy, healthy kids learn better.
Schools Going Solar
Schools are often ideal settings for solar. Their roofs are typically large, spacious, and level, making them perfect for hosting solar arrays.
Their installation also provides numerous opportunities for learning about clean energy.
In its third report on US schools and solar energy, Generation 180, a “a non-profit working to inspire and equip people to take action on clean energy,” reports that more than 7,300 K-12 public and private schools – representing 5.5% of all schools in the US – use solar.
That’s an 81% increase from just 2014. All told, more than 5.3 million K-12 students attend schools with solar panels on their campuses.
And the best part? The report also notes that third-party ownership made solar financing possible for 79% of those same schools. That means the vast majority of solar-using schools never had to make a massive upfront investment before beginning to reap the benefits of solar energy.
(It’s worth noting here that solar continues to get more affordable by the year. Solar is a technology, not a fuel. And as technology develops, it becomes cheaper – unlike finite fossil fuels.)
So, what are these schools doing with the money they are saving by going solar? Quite a lot, actually.
After one school district in Arkansas installed solar panels, it began seeing around $100,000 in annual energy savings. It took that money and increased teachers’ salaries and filled other budget gaps.
That sounds like a pretty good deal to us.
The Skinny On Solar
A solar panel “works by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity,” according to Live Science. That’s a technical way of saying that the panel’s photovoltaic cells convert the energy in sunlight to electricity (specifically, direct current (DC)). This DC electricity is then converted to alternating current (AC) by an inverter.
AC is the type of electrical current you typically use when you plug anything into a residential wall socket. If a school has solar on its roof, the system’s electrical panel sends power to its lights and varied appliances.
Importantly, solar panels tend to last a long, long time.
Many solar arrays are guaranteed for decades, thanks to warranties that typically cover 25-30 years. But because their parts do not wear out easily, solar arrays are well-known to continue producing clean electricity even beyond these lengthy timeframes.
What You Can Do
Solar isn’t just the right choice for the planet – it can also be the smart choice for any school’s bottom line. Whatever fossil fuel companies may claim.
The benefits of solar don’t end with lower power bills. Cutting carbon pollution? Check. Empowering communities? Check. Creating good jobs? Check and check.
And all that’s before we even get to solar’s part in transitioning to a clean energy economy and avoiding some of the worst possibilities of climate change.
The growth of solar power in schools is an across-the-board win – one you should encourage in your own school or the school in your community.
Another way you can support school solar is by contacting your senator now and telling them to support the Build Back Better Act currently under consideration in the chamber.
The Act “contains several exciting and essential investments in early childhood education, school nutrition, higher education, and educator preparation systems that would greatly improve and reshape how education is delivered in the United States,” according to The Education Trust.
While school solar is not specifically earmarked in the bill, well-funded schools are a greater all-around public good – and with additional investments in a number of other areas, schools would perhaps feel more comfortable reappropriating some capital and making the leap to solar.
We know two things for sure: we need to fight climate change with everything we’ve got, and we need to create a better future of opportunity for America. The Build Back Better Act is a major step forward in getting us there. Contact your senator today.