A Project for Better Journalism chapter

Solar Schools are not for Fools


Because of the high cost of solar panels, many public schools haven’t been able to afford to go solar; however, over the past few years, due to the decrease in the cost of going solar, there has been a significant rise in the number of solar schools in the nation. Today, there are over 3,752 schools in the United States that are completely or partially run on the energy which solar panels absorb from the sun. Although this may seem like a large number, it is really only 3% of the schools throughout the entire nation. A significant amount of these schools happen to be in Arizona, under no coincidence that there is rarely a sunless day here.

“Tucson Unified School District is taking advantage of what is called a Solar Services Agreement (SSA) to help district schools use solar and lock in years of future energy savings,” said president of TUSD’s governing board, Michael Hicks. “The district has negotiated this SSA purchase rate to remain constant for the 20-year term of the SSA,” he said.

Not only are solar panels an eco-friendly investment, but they are also one of the more efficient ways of saving money. Solar energy is currently the most efficient renewable energy source known and the most common one throughout the world because of its flexibility.

Previously, public schools have not had enough of a budget to even imagine the possibility of going solar; now, there is another option. “Instead of owning the solar systems, TUSD will simply pay for the clean solar power the systems produce every month,” Michael Hicks said. This will be after the company has fully installed the panels, which the school will not pay directly for. “The solar rate is set in advance and is lower than the TEP rate the district would pay otherwise,” said Michael Hicks. The Solar Services Agreement, which the Tucson Unified School District has made, allows them to save money for the next twenty years by using solar energy for a lower cost than they would otherwise get. For these twenty years, the school will save money, which could then be used for other improvements.

Greenway Assistant Principal Mr. Feldman said that the district would have to decide if Greenway could utilize solar energy.  He also said that the district looked into solar options several years ago, and at the time it wasn’t financially feasible.

“The SSA provides a secure hedge against energy inflation and millions of dollars in much needed savings,” Michael Hicks said. The GUHSD encompasses 2,400,957 square feet. That means that it spends roughly $206,482,302 a year on electricity. If it decided to use the SSA, it could save money for the next 20 years, and then have that 200 million plus to spend on other improvements. This means better sports equipment and uniforms, better computers, more class sets or personal computers or tablets, improved buildings and a larger budget for clubs and electives.

“Currently, 43 district sites are slated for solar systems, with a vast majority of the sites being elementary and K-8 schools,” Michael Hicks said. The Tucson Unified School District makes up 14% of the 300 schools in Arizona which are solar and are losing no money doing so.

“SSA’s are an extremely well-vetted method for schools to obtain solar systems used by many Arizona school districts (for example Tanque Verde and Marana School Districts) that have implemented solar energy via an SSA,” Michael Hicks said. This means that GUHSD could possibly take advantage of the SSA to also go solar without over-spending.

“In addition to providing shaded play areas for students and covered parking, all installed solar systems will feature online data monitoring accessible from any Internet-enabled device,” Michael Hicks said. All of the prospects of going solar seem to be positive, so solar is a possibility in the future of the Glendale Union High School District.