Solar power developers are running into opposition in many parts of the US from people who claim cutting down trees to put up solar panels is counterproductive. It’s hard to see how it is any more counterproductive than cutting down trees to put up shopping malls, create farms, build tract houses, or expand cities but let’s at least acknowledge that trees play an important role in absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In every community, there are acres upon acres of roofs on school buildings that could easily be covered with solar panels without cutting down a single tree. Not only that, those solar panels would help to offset some of the $6 billion that K-12 school systems spend on energy every year. In many districts, energy costs are second only to salaries for teachers and administrators. Colleges and universities in America fork over $14 billion a year in energy costs. And yet very few schools today are taking advantage of solar power to lower their energy bills.
Researcher by Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences shows that taking advantage of all viable space for solar panels could allow schools to meet up to 75% of their electricity needs and reduce the education sector’s carbon footprint by as much as 28%, according to Science Daily.
Data was collected for 132,592 K-12 school systems — 99,700 of them public and 25,700 private — as well as nearly 7,100 colleges and universities. The researchers estimated the rooftop area available for solar panels at each institution, the hourly electricity output given the amount of sunshine at the site, and the hourly electricity demand of each institution. Their analysis has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters.
“Schools are paying for electricity anyway,” says Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, an assistant professor of Earth system science and one of the authors of the study. “This is a way, in some cases, that they can reduce their costs. If there’s a rebate or a subsidy, it can happen more quickly. This is an action we can take that benefits the environment and human health in a real, meaningful way.”
Not only would free electricity from the sun lower utility bills for many schools, adding solar panels could confer an economic benefit on society equivalent to $4 billion a year. That number is arrived at by valuing each ton of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere at $40 and valuing each life saved by reduced atmospheric pollution using generally accepted actuarial standards.
The research does not recommend that schools purchase and install solar panels themselves. Rather they should partner with established companies solar energy companies to install and maintain the systems. The field is ripe for a power purchase agreements, for example.
Sunnier states naturally would see the most benefits from solar panels on the roofs of educational institutions but the study suggests the model works for ever state if the social benefits that flow from having a cleaner environment are taken into account.
There is one other advantage to using solar power for schools. It would help teach future generations the value of clean, renewable electricity so they would be inclined to take advantage of renewables in their own lives after they graduate. Not everything has a precisely defined cost, but that doesn’t mean those things have no value.