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Seven Steps to Solar Schools

The installation ceremony for San Ramon Valley Unified School District's first solar project.

Anyone who has an interest in reducing the amount, cost, and source of the energy used in our public schools will find the "Seven Steps to Solar Schools" a useful guide. Please feel free to adapt this guide to suit your school district.

Solar projects – like all school district construction projects – can be filled with details that can seem daunting at first, but are resolvable and worth the time and effort you will invest in making solar schools in your district a reality.

Remember, too, that school district representatives can have mixed feelings about renewable energy projects and may not share your enthusiasm – at least at first – so don’t be discouraged if they don’t embrace the idea right away. California public school districts always struggle with financial shortfalls, which have resulted in teacher layoffs and program reductions. It can be difficult to get district management to focus on anything beyond their need to educate our children, even if it is likely that the district’s financial situation will be improved by installing renewable energy systems. They will come around if you help them; we can just about guarantee it!

It is not necessary to execute the "Seven Steps to Solar Schools" in chronological order, or even that you do all the steps. You’ll find that some of the steps take place concurrently. Occasionally, a step will be skipped, especially when a short-lived financing opportunity comes along that requires a project to be fast-tracked – as was the case with Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) and Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs) federal government interest bonds offered at near 0% to help fuel renewable projects and other school construction projects. Nevertheless, we have laid out the process that most districts will follow as they consider and implement district-wide energy projects.

Our "Seven Steps to Solar Schools"

1)    “Is there a Champion in the House?”
Someone or some group has to be willing to put this issue before the school community and stick with it. The path to solar can be an uneven process and will have its ups and downs. The commitment and consistency of the “champion(s)” in the schools and at the District will be a key factor in your success. Remind yourself that the district will probably install solar eventually, so why not encourage them to do it now?

2)    Build and educate your team
You need allies in order to be successful. It’s important to build a team, some of whom will meet regularly to review energy issues within the district, and others who can provide their support at critical points in the project’s development. Learn the benefits and costs associated with reducing the district’s energy consumption and moving to solar electricity generation.

3)    Benchmark your district’s energy use
Even if the solar project looks like it will take a while, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to have the energy use benchmarked. Benchmarking has a variety of benefits, including easy access to regular reports on the amount and cost of the energy consumed in the district. We use ENERGY STAR's Portfolio Manager, a free, online energy management system administered by the EPA. Most major utilities can automatically upload your cost and consumption data to Portfolio Manager once the account is established. Click here to see if your utility provides energy data for benchmarking in Portfolio Manager.

4)    Assess your district’s schools for renewable energy generation
Determine which of the district’s schools and facilities are good candidates for solar. You might ask “Are the parking lots suitable for carports? Is the roof oriented for maximum sun exposure? Can the structure support solar panels?” From these questions, the cost of the PV system, its generation potential, and savings can be determined for all buildings and open spaces (e.g., parking lots, fields) to find the most ideal location for your solar project. You might need some help with this, and a local solar provider may be willing to assist.

5)    Develop a financing strategy
Steps 1–4 are preliminary and will lay the groundwork for determining the district’s ideal PV sites, its estimated costs, and estimated savings. Identifying financing options helps the district determine how a project will benefit the district financially. This is often the actual tipping point for district stakeholders, who will decide to proceed—or not—based on the estimated costs and savings. As electricity prices increase and the cost of solar PV drops, it is becoming easier to finance solar projects and achieve a positive benefit for your school district’s General Fund.

6)    Create a Request for Proposals and then select a solar vendor
Once a district has decided to pursue a solar project, it should always seek a variety of bids on the project. Creating a Request for Proposals (RFP) that will address all the major issues involved in this type of project and then comparing the responses is critical to assuring that the district gets the best deal possible. For this element, your district should find a procurement consultant (who is not affiliated with any installer or developer) to develop the RFP. 

7)    Monitor your systems and educate your community
Making sure that your system is running smoothly and that it is being regularly monitored is the key to making sure that the project performs as promised. The system should also have a public interface so that the community can be aware of the system and its benefits. In the classroom, a school’s solar PV systems are an excellent avenue for exploring STEM concepts.