Going Solar

Solar Foundation Photo
According to the latest National Solar Schools Census maintained by The Solar Foundation, there are nearly 3,800 solar schools across the country, and that number is continuing to grow every year. Nebraska is the only state not on the foundation’s census map. (We do have two “hybrid” schools, with both wind and solar installed, but these aren’t included).

Our state is ranked among those in the nation with the greatest energy potential from solar power, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Sun Index. The costs of installing solar systems have plummeted in recent years, while solar panels have become even more efficient. There has never been a better time for our schools to go solar and for Nebraska to join all other states in this nationwide effort to educate our students about renewable energy technology. There are, essentially, three ways your school can “go solar:”

Energy Education
One way is to integrate renewable energy lessons, projects, and activities into your yearly curriculum planning. You’ll find plenty of cross-discipline resources on this website and others. Depending on your school’s goals and available funds, there are two additional ways to go solar, briefly described below.

Small Demonstration Solar Project
This is a solar system, usually photovoltaic (PV), installed for educational purposes only. Although it offsets a small amount of a school’s energy use, its primary purpose is to provide students with opportunities to learn about solar energy generation firsthand and to integrate curriculum specifically geared toward schools with photovoltaic systems.

Energy-Offsetting Solar Systems
These are larger photovoltaic systems installed on a school building’s roof, grounds, or parking lot for the purpose of reducing energy usage and saving money over the lifetime of the solar panels. These also, of course, provide the same educational benefits as a smaller solar project.

Why go solar?
Schools across the country are partnering with community groups, utilities, government agencies, community colleges and universities, solar energy experts, businesses and corporations to install roof-, ground- or pole-mounted PV systems. With a PV system at their schools, students have the opportunity to learn firsthand how solar energy works and the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Internet-connected PV systems can be incorporated into the schools’ science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) programs. Including renewable energy projects and activities is a fun way to enrich your science curricula.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predicts that the growing demand for solar energy in all 50 states will create a great number of green-collar jobs in the near future. Installing a solar PV system and integrating solar energy education into a school’s curricula help to educate students about the diverse jobs available in the solar industry today.

Finally, solar schools set an example for local communities. The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) states that, “…bringing solar to schools is an important first step to increasing the use of solar energy in the community at large. Schools make an excellent showcase for the benefits of solar photovoltaic electricity, solar thermal energy, and passive solar. Changes and improvements at schools are highly visible and closely followed. As has been the case with recycling programs, which were introduced to many communities by schoolchildren educating their parents, students can carry good ideas from the classroom into the mainstream.”

Working With Your School & Community to Develop a PV Project
The steps, below, are suggestions to help you get started. As your school and community begin to create and implement a plan for installing a PV system, you may want to change their order, expand one or more of them, or add new steps. The most important thing is to enjoy the process.

Going solar will provide valuable opportunities for teachers, students, parents, and your community to organize around the goals of creating a solar project that will last for 25 or more years. It will create educational opportunities for people of all ages to participate in and enjoy.

Here are the suggested steps:

  1. Form an initial discussion group that includes other teachers, your principal, the school’s building and grounds maintenance director, and other interested staff.
  2. Select several group representatives to meet with and discuss the proposal with your Superintendent, School Board, and District Buildings and Grounds Director.
  3. When you are ready to begin developing a project plan and budget, include others in the process to create even greater “buy-in” in your school and community. These might include, for example:
  • Students.
  • Parent Teacher Association (PTA) representatives.
  • Spokespersons from your local utility company, municipality, or rural electric cooperative.
  • Instructors and students from local community colleges and universities in the fields of energy science, and environmental and sustainability studies.
  • Representatives from local government agencies, businesses, and organizations.
  • Solar installers and other experts from your utility company, for example: Invite them to present one or more workshops to your group on how to design and install a school PV system; the ideal size for your program goals and budget; the best site to install it; the types of installation: roof-, ground- or pole-mounted; cost estimates; information about labor and manufacturers’ warranties; and what is typically included in the project Memorandum of Understanding. The nonprofit, Nebraskans for Solar maintains a directory of solar businesses organized by city, and a link to another online directory of contractors listed by counties.

If your school has the funds to pay for the solar system outright, disregard the next step:

  1. Create a funding plan. Options you may want to consider include:
  • Install the PV system over two or more years, adding more solar panels each year as funds become available.
  • Sponsor a school or community fundraiser. Request fundraising ideas and assistance from your PTA and other experienced fundraisers in your community.
  • Use the “Buy-a-Brick,” or in this case “Buy-a-Solar-Panel,” model of fundraising by asking businesses and foundations in your community to contribute to the project.
  • Apply for a grant or a matching grant. See the lists of Nebraska and National Foundations on this website.

Cost Estimates for PV Systems
Nebraska installers typically charge $3.50 an installed watt for a roof- or ground- mounted solar electric system, also called photovoltaic (PV) system. Installers may provide a price break for larger systems and charge slightly more for smaller systems, but this cost estimate is a good, general “rule of thumb” for roof- and ground-mounted PV systems. Pole-mounted and ground-mounted solar systems that require extensive trenching will be more expensive. Estimates for these will need to be obtained from solar installers. The following estimates are for typical roof- and ground-mounted PV systems:

At $3.50 per installed watt, the costs of demonstration-size PV systems are:
1-kilowatt PV system (four 250-watt panels): 1000 x $3.50 = $3,500
2-kilowatt PV system (eight 250-watt panels) 2000 x $3.50 = $7,000

For larger PV systems, the cost estimates are:
3-kilowatt PV system (twelve 250-watt panels): 3000 x $3.50 = $10,500
4-kilowatt PV system (sixteen 250-watt panels): 4000 x $3.50 = $14,000
5-kilowatt PV system (twenty 250-watt panels): 5000 x $3.50 = $17,500

Solar Energy Incentives Offered by Lincoln Electric System
Lincoln Electric System (LES) provides customer incentives based on the solar system’s energy-generating capacity, as described in the PDF, “Customer-owned Renewable Generation.” These LES customer rebates are called “capacity payments” and are determined as follows:
South-facing solar systems: $375 for each kilowatt of the system’s nameplate DC capacity.
The estimated costs after the LES capacity payments are subtracted:
1-kilowatt PV system: $3,125
2-kilowatt PV system: $6,250
3-kilowatt PV system: $9,375
4-kilowatt PV system: $12,500
5-kilowatt PV system: $15,625
West-facing PV system: $475 for each kilowatt of the system’s nameplate DC capacity.
The estimated costs after the LES capacity payments are subtracted:
1-kilowatt PV system: $3,025
2-kilowatt PV system: $6,050
3-kilowatt PV system: $9,075
4-kilowatt PV system: $12,100
5-kilowatt PV system: $15,125 

Photo: Courtesy of The Solar Foundation