Sunny Future

From initiating basic recycling programs to establishing intricate, community-wide plans for ongoing environmental sustainability, more and more public and private schools across the country are making the socially responsible decision to go green. And they are quickly realizing the far-reaching educational, financial, and societal benefits to students, faculty, parents, and the community at large.

But there is still room for improvement, especially as education facilities continue to spend an enormous amount of money on energy costs. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that in 2006, schools nationwide spent about $8.3B.

There is a tremendous opportunity for schools to incorporate solar or other forms of renewable energy into their budgets, especially considering that schools spent about $21B on construction in 2007 — the largest construction segment in the U.S. Schools are also the fastest-growing market for green building, which is expected to account for five to 10 percent of the school construction market by 2010.

What’s more, specific grants, tax credits, and other forms of financial assistance targeted for renewable energy systems are available at the local, state, and federal levels. These incentives can greatly reduce the total cost of an alternative energy system, and in some cases, they have eliminated the cost altogether.

Beyond the financial benefits of going solar, community and political leaders continue to recognize that schools must reduce their consumption of traditional energy sources and educate the next generation on the importance of this reduction in order to adequately address environmental issues. For the private school section, going green can positively impact marketing and community relations efforts.

With so many indisputable benefits to incorporating renewable energy into a school’s overall green efforts, many public and private institutions have made the decision to go solar. For example, in 2006, Borrego Solar Systems installed a 30-kW solar power system at the Top of the World Elementary school in Laguna Beach, CA. Thanks to the California Energy Commission's "Solar Schools Program," Top of the World saved 75 percent on the initial installation cost. In addition to helping students learn about environmental responsibility, the system saves the school more than $8,000 annually on electricity costs.

Another example of a school that went solar to truly embrace green thinking as part of its overall culture is the Head-Royce School in Oakland, CA.

How One School Saw the Light

Founded in 1887, the Head-Royce School is an independent, coeducational K-12 college preparatory school with approximately 800 students. Head-Royce is committed to being a green school, as part of its mission states: “Aware of the significant environmental challenges we face in the 21st century, our school strives to be a leader in demonstrating how to establish a more sustainable way of living. As part of its green schools initiative, Head-Royce is committed to providing a healthy environment for students and staff while promoting ecological sustainability.”

In 2006, the school began a community-wide initiative to help develop Head-Royce as a model green school. Head-Royce formed a Green Council to demonstrate how to establish a more sustainable way of living, focusing on four broad areas: sustainable resources, nutritional food, an ecological curriculum, and a healthy environment. In early 2008, the council and the school completed one of the major initiatives of its overall green program: the installation of a 72-kW solar electric power system.

The system was installed in two parts — one on the school's gymnasium and the other on the middle school. The gymnasium has 312 Sharp 170-W solar panels on its metal standing seam roof, and the middle school has 100 Evergreen 190-W panels on its composition asphalt shingle roof. The two phases were completed and interconnected in January 2008.

The combined system covers approximately 6,000 sq. ft. and uses 12 SMA 6,000-W inverters to produce about 70,000 kWh of energy per year. This is enough power to offset the school's annual electricity costs by about 35 percent. The inverters are also linked through a Web-based data monitoring service that acts as an additional learning tool by allowing students to view real-time and historical data about the school's energy production.

Thanks to more advanced technologies, construction techniques, and financing opportunities, it is easier than ever before for schools to incorporate renewable energy into their forward-thinking environmental sustainability plans. Not only do these systems reduce energy costs and lessen a school’s carbon footprint, but they can be integrated into the curriculum to help students understand environmental sustainability challenges and available solutions.

Head-Royce School and Top of the World Elementary are just two examples, but with support from the administration, parents, and community at large, any school can enjoy the short- and long-term benefits of making solar part of their overall green initiatives.

Mike Hall is president of Borrego Solar Systems, Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]