The Cost Benefits of Schools Going Solar

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As solar has entered the mainstream in the past decade, corporations and institutions with massive energy bills have started to realize how much money they can save by switching to solar power. There’s already a strong case for residential rooftop solar, but you can make an even more convincing argument for solar in the commercial sector where prices are lower and overall savings can be dramatic. Educational institutions across the country are now installing solar because solar can save the community and schools major utility costs.

Solar Panels for Schools

For schools considering installing solar panels, the reality is that any big educational institution will have major utility costs.  Schools would tend to have a larger solar system and earn a bigger ROI and therefore stand to save the most with solar.

How Does the Process Work for Schools Installing Solar?

When it comes to major financial decision for an institution like a school, one thing is certain: the process will not be simple. Depending on whether the switch to renewable energy is handled by an Office of Sustainability or general facilities and operations, there will likely be a committee designated to research and review solar bids and determine if the project is economically viable.

Solar is a fairly complex subject with a broad learning curve on subjects ranging from tax credits to equipment to financing options. For any primary stakeholder looking to lead the review on behalf of a school, we suggest speaking with a solar expert.

The stakeholder in charge of the request for proposal (RFP) for the solar installation will first need to review the options for both financing and installation.

In terms of how to pay for solar, the primary debate is between buying the system outright or contracting with a third party owner using a lease or power purchase agreement (PPA). Most schools are nonprofit institutions, which means they can’t take advantage of solar tax breaks. As a result, the majority of school installations tend to use lease or PPA options to finance the system. However, depending on the contractor you work with, the economics could still make more sense to purchase the system in the end.

Schools also need to decide whether to install an on-site or off-site system, which is determined by how much energy is needed and how suitable the school or university’s roof is for solar. For large educational institutions that house thousands of students and provide offices for faculty, installing off-site is the best way to build a solar array that can generate power to meet a significant portion of electricity needs. For a small or medium sized institution, it will make the most sense to install on-site – the school’s roof and surrounding grounds should provide ample space for a rooftop or ground mount installation.

What are the Benefits?

For those still wondering why their school should switch to solar power, there are a number of practical reasons beyond the desire to help the environment and reduce carbon footprint. Here are the top 3 reasons schools across the U.S. are choosing solar energy:

1) Ideal roof types and array space make solar a great option

A barrier for the residential solar market is the reality that many homes do not have suitable roofs or location types for solar, which makes a PV installation less cost-effective. For colleges and K-12s, the situation is reversed: the typical layout of a school is ideal for a solar installation because of flat roofs that provide plenty of unshaded space for the installation. A building’s roofing material and roof angle can greatly impact solar panel output and efficiency, illustrating why this suitability indicator is so important.

2) Solar cuts overall operating costs for the school

Over the past decade, electricity prices have been rising and the cost of energy is expected to continue to increase over time. Volatile prices set on the utility market can make it difficult for schools to plan and budget for the future. A clear way to take control of energy costs is to go the autonomous route by installing solar to generate your own power from the school’s rooftop. As of 2016, solar is the cheapest resource of energy in the world, and big commercial bids are often where the lowest prices are seen.

There’s a clear trend: as systems get bigger, the cost per watt of a solar panel system falls. The world record for lowest-cost solar energy was set last year in Dubai with a massive solar array bid at under 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which illustrates why large institutions like schools and colleges stand to benefit the most from going solar.

Big corporations like Apple, Facebook and Google recognize the financial benefits and have launched massive solar farms to power data centers and operations in the past few years. When you pair this commercial-scale benefit with the reality that educational institutions are always looking to find ways to reduce operational costs and lower tuition dues, solar can significantly contribute to savings for a college or K-12 school.

3) Solar powered schools can improve sustainable brand image

For many students in the modern era, especially in liberal urban environments, the prospect of going to a school or university that is seen as being sustainable and eco-conscious can be a distinguishing factor. Thousands of students seek out schools that will be the best environment to study sustainable practices and green policy, which makes solar-powered universities a very attractive option.

The sustainability movement has taken off in a major way, and the majority of universities have established some type of Office of Sustainability to promote green practices. Having a massive solar array on a school’s rooftop is an easy way to establish a green power brand and offer an edge for students trying to decide between two colleges of similar appeal. Additionally, schools and universities are associated with innovation and thus, having the newest, most carbon conscious and efficient form of energy will certainly affirm credibility that a school in question is truly a progressive institution.