As school districts across the country struggle with budget cuts, the solar energy industry is offering a solution in the form of financing for low cost solar energy installations. It’s a perfect match: many schools have large expanses of flat, unshaded roofs and the buildings are in use mainly during daylight hours, alleviating the need to provide for storage. Federal stimulus grants for solar installations are also playing a role in driving the growing trend toward solar installations at schools, as are efforts by utility companies to add more renewable energy to their portfolios through distributed solar installations.
The installations provide a double benefit for schools because they cut energy costs while also providing educators with a hands on, close-to-home opportunity to teach students about solar energy. As for the politics of it all, what’s so wrong with saving money for taxpayers while expanding the science curriculum?
The Emerging Business of Solar Energy
Sol Ventus Partners LLC is one of a number of companies that offer “turnkey” solar installations that provide school districts with access to solar energy in the form of Power Purchase Agreements. There are no out-of-pocket costs. The company constructs, operates, and maintains the system over an agreed-upon number of years. In one recent project, a new agreement between Sol Ventus and a school district in Ohio will result in a locked in savings of 15-18% over a 20-year period. The solar array also includes a real-time online display that can be accessed by the school district and the community, and Sol Ventus has used it as the basis for a proprietary curriculum that incorporates mathematics, economics and science.
The Disappearing Politics of Solar Energy
As recently as just last year, business journalists (at least one, anyways), were ascribing the “big motivation behind installing solar power” to the “famous liberal bias of schools…” If that was true then, the bottom line is on top of the totem pole now. Just one recent example is the town of Madison, Connecticut, which expects that a new school solar array will save about $10,000 a year. That’s a pretty decent payback, considering that the installation will cost the town $132,000. The total cost is $299,000 with the balance coming from a state grant.
Solar Energy and Taxpayer Subsidies
The state grant certainly played a key role in the Madison installation, but subsidizing energy through grants, tax breaks and other incentives is nothing new. As outlined in detail by today’s New York Times, oil is one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the U.S. Considering the big bucks behind the current energy policy, it’s no mystery why the U.S. remains powered by fossil fuels even as the risks of fossil fuel harvesting rise and communities continue to be devastated by the impacts of oil spills, coal mining, and natural gas drilling. Until we get a new national energy policy that transfers those subsidies into low-risk, alternative energy, it looks like we’re stuck with the status quo. With mid-term elections coming up, now would be the perfect time to let your representatives in Congress know what’s on your mind.
Image: Solar panels on school by mjmonty on flickr.com.
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