Schools and universities enjoy benefits of going solar


The large flat roof of a school or university building is an ideal place for a rooftop solar installation, and clean solar electricity has several benefits for educational institutions. Many schools and universities in the U.S. have already made the move to go solar, and the list of solar schools and universities is expanding rapidly.

While businesses of all sizes are making significant investments in solar to cut energy costs, improve their bottom line, and stay ahead of competition, solar is also booming at schools and universities. The large flat roof of a school or university building is an ideal place for a rooftop solar installation. 

Many schools and universities have already made the smart move to go solar. Recent newcomers to the large and growing list of solar schools and universities include Montessori Community School, Utah; Palo Verde High School, Tucson, Arizona; Redondo Beach Unified School District, California; University of Massachusetts; Western University of Health Sciences, Pomona, California; and Connecticut’s Bridgeport Public Schools District.

The most recent addition to this growing list is Rio Rancho Public Schools. It has recently completed two ground-mounted solar arrays at Cleveland and Rio Rancho High Schools, each consisting of more than 4,000 panels. Each solar installation has a capacity of approximately 1,200kW and is expected to produce 4,650,000kWh annually, providing approximately 80% of the electricity required to power Cleveland and Rio Rancho High Schools. Washington Gas Energy Systems will own and operate the systems under a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA). 

Clean solar electricity has several benefits for educational institutions. The first and most obvious benefit is the financial advantage of going solar. By switching from conventional dirty electricity to solar, schools and universities can save a significant amount of money in energy costs. The University of Massachusetts, for example, saves more than $1 million in annual energy costs, or a total of more than $30 million over the lifetime of the Power Purchasing Agreement the university has closed with First Solar. The savings allows the schools and universities to redirect their precious funding toward academic priorities and needs.

In addition to the financial benefits, solar projects can also serve as valuable tools that provide staff, students, and community with the opportunity to see renewable energy at work first-hand, to educate them about renewable energy, and to increase awereness about renewable energy options. By setting an example, the schools and universities can motivate homeowners and businesses to also make the switch to solar. 

Besides that, schools and universities going solar also delivers several benefits to the local communities, inluding environmental benefits. Installing solar lowers demands on regional fossil fuel generators, thereby preventing millions of tons of harmful greenhouse gases from entering our atmosphere and improving air quality. The Redondo Beach Unified School District’ solar project, for example, will reduce about 16,000 tons of carbon pollution over the next 25 years, the equivalent of taking approximately 2,900 cars off the road or planting roughly 24,500 trees, as well as 25,000 pounds of Sulfur Dioxide and about 23,700 pounds of Nitrous Oxide. 

Dr. V. Sue Cleveland, superintendent of Rio Rancho Public Schools, commented: “[…] Not only do our staff, students, and community have an opportunity to see renewable energy at work, but it reaffirms our district’s commitment to making a difference in terms of sustainability and the protection of the environment. Also, in these times of extremely limited resources, it allows our school district to redirect precious funding toward other academic priorities and needs. Hopefully, this effort will serve as a model for similar projects throughout New Mexico and other states.”

Al Sena, executive director of facilities at Rio Rancho Public Schools, added: “The opportunity to utilize sustainable energy in an educational setting is valuable for our schools and community. The ability for our students to actually see power generated on site and how it affects their schools is education via the environment that provides better understanding of all resources and perhaps inspire them to future professions that can provide positive impact to our world.”

Despite the continiously decreasing cost of solar, upfront cost of a solar array remains quite high. Therefore many colleges and universities find third-party ownership a feasible and simple way to install solar on their facilities. By entering into a Power Powerchase Agreement the solar installation is provided as a service, thereby avoiding the up-front cost of owning the installation.

Anthony Fotopoulos, president of Conergy Americas, commented: “Educational institutions like Rio Rancho can really benefit from the idea of local consumption via power purchase agreements for managing their future energy needs and expenses – this is the future of the American electricity market. With this electricity market model, consumers benefit from considerable electricity cost savings from the green power – without substantial upfront costs.”