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Is Solar Bright for Your School?

October 13, 2016 by Mark Hanson PhD, LEED AP BD+C and Todd Bushmaker AIA, LEED AP in Wisconsin School News

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook, electricity rates are expected to rise in future years. Meanwhile, renewable energy, such as solar and wind, is rapidly expanding across the country. Renewable energy expansion, combined with recent reductions in solar cost, makes this an opportune time to explore the possibility of solar energy. 

Solar energy can provide a unique educational platform for your students while also providing a cost-competitive source of electricity. Additionally, new financial arrangements and incentives are available in Wisconsin allowing school districts to pursue a solar solution for minimal up-front costs.

Why You Should Consider Solar
On-site, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems should be considered with many new construction or remodel projects. Two key considerations are the readiness of the school to include renewable energy education in the curriculum and the PV system's economic performance. Solar will be economically viable today for many schools in Wisconsin, contingent on various factors such as: existing utility rates, size of the school, configuration and condition of the roof, and shading. Solar could also be contemplated as a stand-alone option for existing facilities. 

Solar PV systems can provide an interactive and real-time educational platform for students that supports STEM, as well as the social sciences. The Midwest has rapidly growing renewable energy and related jobs in the wind, solar, and biomass sectors. Providing students with firsthand exposure to these systems opens their minds to new opportunities. 

In addition to providing learning experiences for students, solar can also help your school district reduce its carbon footprint.

Solar Power in Darlington
In January, the Darlington Community School District completed the installation of a 156 kW solar PV system on the roof of their elementary/middle school building.

The PV system provides power to the elementary/middle school and the adjacent high school. This project is the largest solar project at a Wisconsin public school. The system is expected to generate nearly 200,000 kWh of electricity per year, which is about 20 percent of the entire district's current use.

"Darlington teachers and administrators are thrilled to provide our students and community an interactive, real-time solar educational platform for students, which supports science, technology, and math education while reducing the carbon footprint for our community," stated Denise Wellnitz, district administrator.

The system is expected to save the school district about $14,700 in usage and demand charges per year, or about 15 percent of their current electricity costs. It should operate for 40 years or more (its key component has a 25-year warranty).

As electricity rates increase over the next four decades, the project's savings will also increase. It is anticipated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 400,000 pounds per year, which is the equivalent of what is absorbed by 149 acres of U.S. forest. The electricity output would meet the power requirements of 18 average U.S. homes.

The district has set up kiosks and a link on its website that provides information on renewable energy produced, avoided CO2 emissions, and other elements. Students, teachers, and the community can observe power output on a continuous basis, noting daily patterns and the impact of cloud and snow cover. They can compare minute-to-minute to annual solar production relative to monthly and annual building electrical loads, and analyze cost savings.

It's hard to over-state the educational benefit," said Aaron Wolfe, school board president. "Our students are going to inherit significant energy problems from us, and they will have to find solutions that go far beyond a 156 kilowatt solar array. Hopefully what we have done here will show them that innovation is possible anywhere and perhaps provide a little inspiration for them to innovate in the future."

The Ultimate Vision
Solar and other renewable energy options should always be considered within the framework of an integrated approach to facilities operation. The fundamental approach is to first reduce the energy requirements of an existing or new building, including the systems and equipment used within, such as heating and air conditioning, lighting, technology equipment, vending machines, food preparation equipment, and office machines. 

Then, employ solar or other on-site renewable energy systems utilizing the same economic criteria to further reduce operational cost. The goal now being pursued in the building community is to build zero-net energy buildings--meaning the building produces as much energy as it needs. This may require that it exports energy to the grid at various times and imports energy from the grid in other periods.

Is now the right time to follow Darlington's example and make the switch to solar? The benefits for students, faculty, community, environment, and bottom lines should encourage us all to give it serious consideration.

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