PV in schools: Education sector is one of solar’s best opportunities

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Organizations in every industry are impacted by societal demands for environmental responsibility, and the education sector is no exception. Across the country, colleges, universities and K-12 schools are rising to the challenge. In fact, according to “The Solar Foundation’s 2014 report, Brighter Future: a Study on Solar in U.S. Schools,” solar installations on U.S. K-12 schools experienced a compound annual growth rate of 110 percent. For post-secondary education in particular, the Association for Advanced Sustainability in Higher Education cataloged at least 330 campuses with solar installations across 46 states.

California, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and New York are leading the way with more than 1,000 MW of solar PV installed capacity in 2015 Q2, reports the Solar Energy Industries Association. Many others are close behind.

So, what’s enabling growth in these states? In many areas, the answer is a combination of state and utility incentive programs, net energy metering, renewable portfolio standards, access to sunlight and the recently extended 30 percent Solar Investment Tax Credit — a key factor in sustained growth.

Colleges and universities

The millennial generation is especially conscious of protecting our planet. Students want access to renewable energy programs that will help enable a more sustainable lifestyle and clear the path to careers in the rapidly growing clean economy. According to The Solar Foundation’s 2013 National Solar Job Consensus, the U.S. solar industry currently employs more than 142,000 Americans — a 20 percent jump from 2012. With this growth, more professors and students from numerous areas of study including urban planning, conservation, clean energy and architecture are looking for solar systems that will facilitate research and project development opportunities across curriculums.

Along with faculty and student groups, presidents and facility managers see the benefit of going solar. These key decision makers often face budget constraints and rising energy costs. Solar provides an opportunity to significantly reduce energy costs and unlock new sources of operating funds by leveraging third-party financing models.

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K-12 schools

At the K-12 level, the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment state that students in the U.S. performed “below average” in math and only close to the average in science. In particular, students demonstrated weaknesses translating real-world situations into mathematical terms.

With the introduction of solar technology, teachers envision numerous educational opportunities that can be integrated into a school’s math, science, technology and engineering-related programs to improve test scores. It opens the door to life-long opportunities in the vastly growing renewable energy industry by simply helping students see firsthand how sunlight is converted to electricity. Solar inspires classroom discussion and fosters the development of an energy- and sustainability-conscious community engaged in solving our world’s environmental challenges.

Like their peers in higher education, superintendents also face budget constraints and the high cost of energy constantly looming over their heads. Solar provides a viable option for ensuring a stable energy budget, allowing for direct savings that can be used to fund other important educational needs such as classroom materials and teachers’ salaries.

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The Installation Equation

With so many elements at play, implementing renewable energy can be challenging, and school campuses face a unique set of hurdles.

While their students and educators face tight academic deadlines in the classroom, going solar turns the tables on administrators who must push to develop their sustainable solutions on constricted timelines and shoestring budgets. Whether it’s the looming start of the new academic year, a big rivalry home game or graduation ceremony, timing is crucial. These institutions can’t afford delays that keep doors closed.

Installation location is also a top priority. Schools pride themselves on aesthetic beauty, providing students with spaces to gather outdoors for study sessions or, at the lower level, places to play a passionate game of tag. Solar installations must enhance, not detract, from the surrounding landscape while demonstrating a school’s commitment to sustainability.

To overcome these and other hurdles that arise at each phase of development, interoperability is key. It takes a team of designers, financers and installers working together with school systems to complete systems and connect to the grid. Fully integrated models with one provider offer a variety of financing options that eliminate the need for upfront capital outlays and simplify solar through a structured, standard set of contracts. This mitigates project delivery risk for a more efficient and cost-effective solution that ensures attractive and reliable benefits for decades to come.

Holistic solution

Whether to improve test scores, increase job opportunities, reduce energy bills or enable modernization of the classroom, the popularity of solar is growing among educational institutions. Educators and classroom technology experts are demanding more than just solar panels, PPAs and hedges against energy prices. They are seeking holistic solutions that look beyond the basic implementation of solar energy systems and address core areas of their communities’ concerns.

Thanks to a shift in the solar industry, business models are emerging that offer brighter solutions to serve the education sector. Working together, innovative providers like Panasonic Eco Solutions are offering solar platforms that light up every classroom, auditorium and young mind they reach, from K-12 to college.

With panels in place, schools are reaping both financial and non-cash benefits. They are simultaneously reducing utility costs while also establishing their commitment to social responsibility and strengthening their brand identity — key to success in today’s sustainability-minded society.

Interested in learning more about integrated solar solutions? Visit www.panasonic.com/energysolutions

Jeffrey Siegel is VP of marketing for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Co.