Facing Budget Shortfalls, These Schools Are Turning to the Sun

Source: By Cara Buckley, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2022

Public schools are increasingly using savings from solar energy to upgrade facilities, help their communities, and give teachers raises — often with no cost to taxpayers.

A view down a high school hallway that’s covered on its left wall with balloons and construction paper. There are balloons on on the ground, where at the end of the hallway a student prepares a poster, while two students in the middle ground tape balloons on the wall. A ceiling light is covered with yellow paper, casting a yellowish hue on everything, and there are rolls of colored paper in the foreground.
Students prepared a hallway for homecoming at Heart-Butte High School in Montana, where energy credits from the district’s solar panels are used to lower electric bills of households in the community, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.Janie Osborne for The New York Times

One school district was able to give pay raises to its teachers as big as 30 percent. Another bought new heating and ventilation systems, all the better to help students and educators breathe easier in these times. The improvements didn’t cost taxpayers a cent, and were paid for by an endlessly renewable source — the sun.

As solar energy gains traction across the country, one beneficiary have been schools, particularly those in cash-strapped districts contending with dwindling tax bases.

From New Jersey to California, nearly one in 10 K-12 public and private schools across the country were using solar energy by early 2022, according to data released Thursday by Generation180, a nonprofit that promotes and tracks clean energy. That’s twice as many as existed in 2015.

The savings in electric bills from schools with solar panels often topped millions in each district, and many have been able to adopt the technology without shouldering any costs up front.

“If you’re conservative, we didn’t ask you for more taxes, if you’re liberal, you love the green concept,” said Michael Hester, the school superintendent in Batesville, Ark., where solar arrays paid for teacher raises. “It’s a win-win.”

In Heart-Butte, Mont., the school superintendent, Mike Tatsey, arranged for three-quarters of the energy credits generated by the district’s new solar panels to help lower the electric bills of households in the community, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He believed that freeing up extra spending money for staples like groceries and shoes could have a ripple effect in classrooms.

“That little bit, in my mind, might help a family feel better about themselves, and kids feel better themselves,” Mr. Tatsey said. “In a roundabout way, when they come to school, because of that little bit of extra hope we’re able to give, they’ll be ready to learn.”

Michael Hester, in maroon tie and gray suit, stands by a glass door and squints into the sunlight.
Michael Hester, superintendant of Batesville Schools in Arkansas. Terra Fondriest for The New York Times
Black and white goats frolic in grass on a field, which is fenced off and behind which is a series of solar panels angled at the sun. Trees line the horizon.
Goats cared for by Batesville High School’s 4-H students, next to the school’s solar panels. “If you’re conservative, we didn’t ask you for more taxes, if you’re liberal, you love the green concept,” Dr. Hester said.Terra Fondriest for The New York Times

In Louisa County, Virginia, school administrators used federal Covid recovery and local funds to place 32 solar-generated mobile Wi-Fi stations throughout the community during the height of the pandemic, helping to connect families and the roughly 40 percent of students who didn’t have reliable internet access. “The beautiful part of the project was once we designed the Wi-Fi trailers, we had high school students build them,” said David Childress, the district’s director of technology.

Solar systems installed at its schools were also forecast to save the Louisa district up to $8 million over three decades, and though no savings were expected for the first year, 2021, the spike in energy costs meant they ended up saving $4,000 in the first six months. Douglas Straley, the district’s superintendent, said the plan was to put the savings into classrooms by adding new programs and enhancing existing ones.

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In Wise County in southwest Virginia, where solar energy is expected to save the school district $7.5 million over 35 years, the project paid for solar apprenticeships that officials said were sorely needed; the region had long been economically dependent on coal. This summer, 10 high school students helped with the installation while earning $17 an hour plus stipends over eight weeks, along with credits toward a becoming a solar and electrical technician.

“We’ve been trying to diversify our economy,” said Greg Mullins, who recently retired as schools superintendent there. “This gives them the skills to allow them to manufacture and install solar, and perhaps to be able to earn a living somewhere in this part of the world.”

After salaries, energy is the second biggest expense for public K-12 schools, according to White House figures, amounting to some $8 billion a year. Newly available federal funding for school energy upgrades in the infrastructure bill, along with incentives to adopt solar in recently passed climate legislation, is forecast to offset those costs while also clocking environmental benefits.

Mike Tatsey, in jeans and a light blue plaid short sleeve shirt, his thumbs hooked into his jean pockets, stands in a field with solar panes in the background. Brush partially obscures the foreground.
Mike Tatsey, superintendent of schools in Heart-Butte, believes that freeing up extra money for staples like groceries and shoes could have a ripple effect in classrooms.Janie Osborne for The New York Times
Two elementary school students stand at table covered in papers, markers and other school materials, and face a wall with a poster map of Montana, divided by tribal territories. The child at left uses an orange marker to point at an area called “Blackfeet & Gros Ventre.”
Students at Heart-Butte School exploring their area of the world on a map in the “Blackfeet Immersion” classroom.Janie Osborne for The New York Times

If all of the roughly 130,000 K-12 schools were to fully transition to solar, Generation180 calculated there’d be an annual reduction of 60 million metric tons in carbon emissions, the equivalent of shuttering 16 coal-fired power plants. As of early 2022, the nonprofit found that roughly 8,400 schools had solar installations, generating enough energy to power 300,000 homes, triple the collective solar capacity schools had eight years ago. About half of the public schools that have solar panels are eligible for Title 1 funding, meaning at least 40 percent of their students qualify as low-income.

For most schools, the ability to go solar hinges on local policies that allow third party solar ownership. Under those agreements, solar companies pay for solar systems up front, along with installation, operation and maintenance. In return for housing the system, schools typically buy electricity at reduced rates, and can redirect the savings toward classrooms or facilities upkeep. According to Generation180, such agreements are crucial, and have been used to pay for nearly 90 percent of total solar capacity at schools.

Roadblocks remain. Because consumers who can generate their own electricity buy less power from the grid, some utilities want to charge rooftop solar owners fees that can negate their savings, or credit them for less than the retail cost for the energy their panels produce. In California, a renewable energy leader, the public utilities commission is considering a proposal that would cut incentives for homeowners to install solar panels and slash solar growth in the state.

“There is no national state of play, it is a patchwork of state by state, even city by city and county by county,” said Michael Craig, an assistant professor specializing in renewables and decarbonization at the University of Michigan.

David Childress, left, and Doug Straley of Louisa County schools, with a solar-generated mobile WiFi station in Mineral, Va. Administrators distributed 32 such stations throughout community during the height of the pandemic.
Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

Anthony Smith, president and founder of Secure Futures, a solar company in Virginia, was developing a solar system using a third party agreement at Washington and Lee University 10 years ago when his company received cease and desist letters from a local utility. He has since lobbied for legislation thatpassed in 2013 and 2020, and encouraged solar adoption in the state. “We’re not just in the solar business, we’re in the solar policy business,” he said.

Despite pushback from utility companies, the number of states allowing third party ownership is growing, according to Generation180, and now stands at 30 — recent additions include Mississippi — along with Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, more schools will be able to buy their systems outright by using a credit that covers 30 percent of the cost.

Doug Arnold, who oversees facilities upgrades and major projects for Orange County Public Schools in Virginia, said when the district first considered solar panels six years ago, the project was met with resistance from the school board. After Virginia passed solar legislation in 2020, the project, by Secure Futures, became a better deal and won board approval.

Solar panels installed at seven schools would end up offsetting up to 91 percent of electric usage per school, saving them about $130,000 a year, and $9.5 million over 35 years.

“The tax base is low here, there’s not a lot of industry there, and there’s no interest in raising taxes ever,” Mr. Arnold said.

In Arkansas, the Batesville school district became the first in the state to go solar after a Republican-sponsored bill passed in 2018 that permitted both third party solar ownership and increased solar capacity. The bill had bipartisan support, along with heavy backing from Walmart, which is headquartered there.

A classroom filled with high school students sitting at their laptops, with world flags hanging from the ceiling and a map of the world with four different clocks set to different world times on the back wall. The smiling teacher sits at her desk, controlling a presentation out of frame from her computer.
Constance Johnson, a history teacher at Batesville High School, led a quiz game on a recent Wednesday.Terra Fondriest for The New York Times
A walkway leading up to a high school parking lot with rows of parked school buses sits underneath an large canopy, the underside of several solar panels.
Solar panel awnings cover the walkways and entryways of Batesville High School.Terra Fondriest for The New York Times

Mr. Hester, the Batesville district school superintendent, said their savings from solar were initially estimated at $2 million over two decades, until rising energy costs increased that figure at least twofold. The resultant spike in teacher salaries drew international attention. Their base pay went from around $30,000 to more than $40,000, Mr. Hester said, enabling the district to attract teachers despite a statewide shortage, and without forcing it to seek additional tax dollars.

About 30 other school districts in the area have since adopted solar, he said.

Tish Tablan, program director at Generation180, said the normalization of solar was especially potent when it came to public schools. “When schools go solar, students learn about it, they talk to parents, families are inspired,” she said, “We see a ripple effect across communities.”

Because schools often serve as community hubs in climate emergencies, which are on the rise, she said it was imperative that they are self-sufficient and resilient. After wildfires and deadly mudslides devastated Santa Barbara County, Calif., in early 2018, the school district began installing solar installations and microgrids with battery storage. Once the project is completed, as much as 94 percent of the district’s energy will come from renewable sources, according to Laura Capps, a school board member.

In the borough of Eatontown, N.J., Scott McCue, the school superintendent, said his district needed to replace its heating and ventilation systems in the face of losing $2.4 million in state funding over seven years. It sold $4.6 million in bonds to pay for energy upgrades like retrofitted lighting and solar installations, which will cover between 80 and 90 percent of the energy needs of school buildings as well as the cost of 26 new HVAC units, without using taxpayer funds.

Mr. McCue said the solar panels will also benefit the school curriculum. In 2020, New Jersey’s department of education adopted new standards requiring that climate change be taught in public schools. Mr. McCue said the new solar arrays will be used as on-site educational tools. “It’s a great hands-on way to teach students not just how solar energy helps the Earth and the environment, but also, if the project is done correctly, how it can also benefit the consumer directly,” he said.

Back in Batesville, Ark., Mr. Hester said the school district’s solar array had the entirely unexpected effect of drawing gawkers to what he described as the “the sexiest thing we’ve done”: putting up solar canopies over the loading zones at the junior and senior high schools. Soaring and vast, they provide shelter from the rain and sun, and may well be the closest thing Batesville has, at least appearance wise, to an international airport.

After the canopies went up, carloads of people, many of them decades past their high school days, began coming by during off-hours and weekends to take them in and snap pictures, Mr. Hester said. “It has just gone crazy,” Mr. Hester said.

A few rows of solar panels are nestled next to a tree in a vast countryside with a low sun near the mountainous horizon.
Solar panels installed near the Heart-Butte schools in Montana.Janie Osborne for The New York Times