Solar Energy Can Power Classrooms While Empowering Communities
Written by Peter Lehner, Executive Director, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)
Around this time last year, the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District in Fresno County, Calif., was able to reinstate the music program it had lost three years earlier. The district’s 2,300 kids got their music back, not because of a wildly successful candy sale, but because of a savvy investment in solar power that will save the district about $900,000 in its first five years, and a total of $9 million over 25 years. Enough to hire a music teacher and more.
Thanks to plummeting solar prices, high electric costs and public policies that promote clean energy, solar is creating powerful new opportunities for cash-strapped schools, freeing funds for music, art and other vital programs, and providing a real-world learning experience for students. Yet despite solar’s potential to revitalize education, too many schools are still on the sidelines, wondering how to get into the game.
That’s why NRDC is launching a new initiative, including our first-ever crowd-funding campaign, to help schools across the country go solar. We’re calling our effort Solar Schools: Powering Classrooms, Empowering Communities.
Kids are so excited by solar energy that schools and solar seems like an obvious partnership. The reality is that bringing the two together is often harder than it should be. Navigating the complex maze of state and local rules governing solar power can be vexing, to say the least. (During my own experience installing solar in my home, it seemed like every obstacle, intentional or accidental, was put in our way.) And school communities aren’t typically plugged into a network of solar experts who can help.
To bridge this gap, NRDC is developing an online platform that breaks down the process of getting solar into schools into bite-sized, achievable chunks and that connects school communities with experts and organizations that can support them each step of the way. My colleague, Nathanael Greene, describes the tool as a cross between TurboTax and Match.com — it provides the step-by-step guidance of tax software with a dating site’s ability to bring people together (although in this instance, you’ll find a mentor, not a date).
We’re using crowd-funding to get our pilot project going in a few select schools, not only to raise money, but to demonstrate widespread popular support for schools going solar. Solar energy opens up new opportunities for all kinds of schools, in all kinds of communities. Solar installations can help save key school programs by reducing the cost of energy and provide a new way to get kids inspired and excited, using hands-on science and math. Bringing solar energy to schools also brings clean energy and jobs to local communities, while reducing global warming pollution.
Our ultimate goal is to help every American school that wants solar power to get it — and all the educational, environmental and financial benefits that come with it — by providing the tools, training and guidance it takes to see a solar project through from start to finish.
I’ve seen first-hand the impact that a new solar installation can have on a school and a community. When I worked for the State of New York, we used some funds received in a legal settlement from polluters to install solar power on schools and town halls. The people in these communities were so proud and excited to be part of the future, rather than tied to the pollution of the past. They often learned about efficiency during the process and made even more energy and efficiency upgrades at the same time, doubling the payback. It was inspiring to see the difference a set of solar panels could make for a community.
Photo Credit: NRDC