Inside the People-Powered Movement for 100% Solar Schools
Just last year in Durham, two schools added solar to their campuses, including on the roof of the Southern School of Energy & Sustainability’s new outdoor classroom. To maximize energy savings and to get hands-on training with solar power, students worked with specialists to install four solar panels on the classroom’s bright red tin roof.
While the 5-kilowatt installation at Jordan High and this demonstration project are small-scale and for demonstration purposes, they have captured the community’s attention and drawn widespread support to go all the way to 100 percent solar energy.
Schools of the Future, Today
Imagine our schools producing all the energy they will use on site. On a short walk outside for a field trip, teachers could educate students on how to work with solar panels, geothermal, or small wind turbines. On campus, students would get exposure in real-time data collection, job readiness experience, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills. It turns out, these schools of the future are here today.
Spreading Across the State
A few years ago, just one school in North Carolina could brag about it’s net-positive status — meaning it produces more energy than it uses. Now there are more than three districts in North Carolina with ‘high performing’ or energy-positive school buildings. These districts have seen significant decreases on their electrical bills, achieved through installing LED lighting, energy efficient appliances, and smart building design.
All of these schools have also offset their energy usage with on-site renewable energy production. Some have even created a new revenue stream by selling excess energy back to the grid. During tight budget times, these innovative ideas should not be overlooked. One school even produces 50 percent more energy than it uses!
Students Today, Employed Tomorrow
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are currently more than 188 solar companies in North Carolina, employing 6,000 people. The number of green jobs continues to grow, allowing graduates to plug directly into the rapidly expanding green jobs market.
Some students in North Carolina are now leaving high school certified in Solar PV and Energy Auditing.
Switching to Solar to Save Money
Utility rates are projected to rise again this year. According to the Department of Energy, utilities are usually the second-highest expense for school districts, after personnel. Many decision makers face hard choices between cutting instructional services or crucial academic support — both which impact the classroom.
But keeping the lights, heat or air conditioning on, shouldn’t come at the expense of more books and higher teacher pay. Some districts are taking matters into their own hands. By switching to solar, they can save money to supplement the dwindling funding from their state education budgets.
Opportunities for Visionary Students and Schools
Four middle school girls from Neal STEM Academy of Engineering and Design went to an international competition for designing and modeling their school of the future. They designed their school to be net-zero, complete with a floating solar farm, solar sculptures and it even used smart glass technology in the windows. This is a stark contrast to the current state of our schools, that have been underfunded for years.
What could be possible if every school district began taking the steps necessary to secure a just transition to a clean, renewable energy future for all of their schools? Making that future a reality will take all of us getting involved to create this future we all want to see. Other districts across the country are installing solar and advocating for better energy policies that would ease access to easier financial models for schools.
When schools and communities take the initiative together, things can change faster than you think.