Solar-Powered Schools: What You Need to Know

An array of solar panels on a rooftop.
(Image credit: Image by Michael Pointner from Pixabay)

More than 8,500 schools across the U.S. now utilize solar power in some capacity. Since 2015, the number of schools using solar energy has doubled, and overall, school solar power capacity has tripled.

School leaders are motivated to install solar panels for eco-friendly reasons as well as cost savings, but solar can also provide many educational opportunities, says Tish Tablan, Senior Program Director at Generation180, a clean energy nonprofit that tracks solar school data (as cited above), and is dedicated to bringing solar power to all schools.

Even though installing solar technology at a school building can be a significant undertaking, there are many resources for school leaders as they prepare for the process, Tablan says.

Here’s everything educators need to know about solar power at schools.

Why Do Schools Go Solar? 

Solar power is an important green initiative yet when schools install solar panels it can often be more about the Benjamins than preserving the ice caps.

“The number one reason often is cost savings,” Tablan says. “That's really what I think just speaks directly to every school because, as we know, schools are budget-constrained, so any place that they can find some operational cost savings, then they can reinvest that money back into student learning and teachers.”

She adds, “Energy is the second-highest expense for schools after staffing. So when schools are facing budget shortages, they are often looking at cutting teachers, or cutting teacher salary, when they could be looking at addressing their second-largest budget expense, which is utilities and energy bills.”

What About a Desire For Clean Energy and Education Benefits?  

Of course, positively impacting climate change is a motivation for solar energy as well. “Students are speaking up about climate change, and they're worried about climate change, and they want to see their schools, modeling the kind of future they want to see — one powered by clean energy and less reliant on fossil fuels,” Tablan says.

The presence of solar power on the school grounds also powers plenty of hands-on learning at schools across the country.

“One of the great benefits of having solar technology on site is that it's very easy to integrate into the curriculum to enhance STEM learning and also career and technical education,” Tablan says. “Teachers are using solar data to look at energy consumption in the buildings and to integrate it into some science and math, and have very authentic learning opportunities where they can learn about what the school is actually doing and what are ways we can start to reduce our energy consumption.”

My School Is Located in a Cloudy Region, Does That Mean Solar Isn’t Feasible?  

No, school leaders are often surprised by how effective solar can be even in regions that get less sunshine.

“It is a common myth to think that the amount of sunshine you get determines whether or not solar is applicable for your school," Tablan says. “I say, 'Your attitude is more important than your latitude.'”

With a can-do attitude, schools can often find an appropriate place for solar panels. Frequently roofs are ideal, and if your school’s roof is more than 15 years old, you can build solar installation into your roof replacement plan, Tablan says.

What If My School Can't Afford Upfront Costs? 

The vast majority of schools who install solar panels don’t pay any upfront costs.

“Nearly 90% of solar capacity on K-12 schools in the country is actually financed through a third-party ownership model, meaning a third party, such as a solar developer, is the one who pays the upfront costs for installation for the equipment,” Tablan says. “They own and maintain the system, and manage the whole system for the length of your agreement with them.”

For school leaders who don’t want to enter that type of arrangement, schools are now eligible for the solar investment tax credit through the Inflation Reduction Act. This can pay up to 60% of your solar program, Tablan says.

What Are Some Resources For Launching a Solar School?  

Generation180 has an easy-to-read guide on going solar for schools. In addition, the nonprofit provides data, maps, and other resources for schools going solar, including a solar schools help desk.

“It's basically a knowledge base that we filled with frequently asked questions. 'How much solar do I need?' 'Is there a solar curriculum available that I can use with my classroom?'” Tablan says.

Another great resource for schools is the Efficient and Healthy Schools program from the Department of Energy. “You can just sign up on the website, and they'll have one of their technical systems partners reach out to you and kind of walk you through the process,” Tablan says. The department can help you conduct solar feasibility studies and answer common questions about the process, such as “Should I start with energy efficiency first, instead of solar?”

“Those are the kinds of resources that they're now able to offer for free for any public school in the country,” says Tablan.

Anything Else I Should Know About Going Solar? 

Beyond consulting available resources on incorporating solar power at schools, Tablan says public school leaders should start by consulting with their facilities director and asking questions about the school's or district’s needs, and whether they’ve considered solar before and what the challenges might be.

“Because ultimately, out of everyone in a school district, that person is going to be one of the key stakeholders to making it happen,” Tablan says. “They're going to be most familiar with what roof space they have, what land space, and they're usually most familiar and have access to the utility bills.”

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.