A+ for solar schools

It’s Tuesday, September 20, and U.S. schools are going solar.

In 2014, two solar energy groups published a report finding that only about 3,750 U.S. schools — out of a total of roughly 130,000 — were generating electricity from solar panels. But that number is on the rise.

According to the fourth edition of the “Brighter Future” report, released last week by the clean energy nonprofit Generation180, the number of U.S. schools using solar power has more than doubled in the last seven years, reaching roughly 8,400 by the end of 2021. These so-called “solar schools” now account for nearly 1 in 10 public, independent, and charter K-12 schools and serve more than 6 million students nationwide.

Tish Tablan, director of Generation180’s Solar for All Schools program and lead author of the report, called the number “an incredible milestone.” Not only has the number of schools with solar grown, their systems are larger, too. Since 2015, American schools’ total solar energy capacity has nearly tripled to 1,644 megawatts — enough to meet the electricity use of all the households in a city the size of Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C.

According to Tablan, much of this growth has been enabled by third-party financing models like power purchase agreements, or PPAs. With these agreements, developers pay to install and operate solar panels, while schools buy the electric output for a predetermined amount of time. Developers benefit because the agreements allow them to take advantage of federal tax credits and provide a stable source of income. For schools, the agreements can slash thousands of dollars off their utility bills and remove up-front costs associated with solar installation.

Despite schools’ progress, Generation180 emphasizes that there’s still work to do, as some 90 percent of U.S. schools still lack solar panels. Tablan told me that federal funding from last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and this year’s Inflation Reduction Act could help push the needle forward; together, the laws include hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to upgrade schools’ energy systems and reduce their climate pollution, as well as an expanded tax credit to help schools offset the cost of new solar and battery storage projects.

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Author: systems