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Solar 101: Realizing the Rewards

by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP and Mark Hanson PhD LEED AP BD+C

There’s a common Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” It could be similarly said about integrating solar energy into our schools.

Early solar adopters were visionaries focused on bringing renewable energy into Wisconsin schools. They focused first on education; any financial benefit was secondary.

The good news is that the early installations are still functioning well, and many of those early adopters continue to grow their systems and capabilities. Their students and communities have realized the rewards.

On-site solar photovoltaic and battery energy storage systems should be considered with every new school construction or remodeling project. They should also be contemplated as a stand-alone option for existing schools. Solar continues to be the most cost-effective way of working toward larger goals of overall sustainability, energy independence, carbon neutrality, and net-zero energy use.

"In many communities, school districts are the first organization to use significant solar power."

Jody Andres

K-12 Market Leader

How can schools use solar energy?
Solar photovoltaic cells transform sunlight into electricity. Solar mounting options provide flexibility for both new and existing schools, with rooftop, ground-mounted and car port mounting all viable choices.

Battery energy storage systems are charged from surplus solar production when more power is generated than the school needs at that moment. This stored power can be used later, such as overnight or especially during high-cost, peak power periods. Additionally, batteries can be charged from the electrical grid during low-cost, non-peak hours.

Solar and battery energy storage technologies have advanced significantly in the last 10 years, becoming highly feasible options for school districts.

Incorporating energy storage with solar adds flexibility to a building’s energy management system. With the addition of micro-grids, battery storage can also be used for emergency power during outages on the electrical grid. Because of the intermittent generation provided by solar (and also wind generation), battery systems are rapidly expanding to help fill the gaps when sufficient renewable energy is not available. They are being included in both utility-scale solar projects and on-site solar projects.

Costs for both solar and battery systems continue to drop as manufacturing volumes increase and technology improves.

Saving money with solar
Overall costs of solar installations dropped significantly in recent years, and the market is rapidly expanding. The principal economic advantage of on-site solar is a lower cost of power. This benefit includes lower maintenance and operation costs along with a competitive guaranteed cost rate for future electricity.

Solar systems have emerged after decades of development as the lowest cost electricity generation option in the U.S. and globally.

Previous Wisconsin school solar projects often used grants or raised funds locally. Three current grant programs are:
* The Wisconsin Solar on Schools Program is managed by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association with the support of the Couillard Solar Foundation.
* The Wisconsin Focus on Energy Program.
* The Energy Innovation Grant Program uses Department of Energy funds and is administered by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

It is worth noting that global crises, including the supply change disruptions from the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are causing some near-term turbulence in acquiring and pricing new solar and battery system installations. While solar prices may fluctuate, there will be upward pressure on costs for its main competitor: natural gas. This suggests that solar will become even more advantageous economically.

It is important to consider green-minded investors who might provide up-front dollars along with grants and leveraging federal tax credits. Third-party investors have been used in recent solar projects. The Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation has done splendid work and been supportive through their grant programs. Be sure to investigate all economic options for your area when considering your next project.

The benefits don’t stop with financial rewards. There are many additional advantages for our communities and students.

Solar as an educational tool
Solar and battery systems can provide a real-time, interactive educational platform for students that supports STEM. Many schools have capitalized upon this to benefit the community and students. These systems can also prove to be a prompt for discussions in math, finance, sociology, civics, and political science.

In many communities, school districts are the first organization to use significant solar power. This has opened eyes to more sustainable options for businesses, nonprofits, and government entities.

Throughout much of the United State, renewable energy jobs are rapidly rising. Exposing students to these emerging systems opens their minds to new concepts and gives them an advantage in their career considerations…if the curriculum provides for it.

Initiatives like the American Institute of Architects’ Climate Action Plan, as well as emerging federal and state goals for a zero-carbon economy by 2050, can be used as teaching tools. Your students can be in a leading position to develop and implement the technologies to address these goals. In addition, informing students of the fundamentals of these technologies already available through a hands-on learning approach, paired with a strong environmental curriculum, is a brilliant way to challenge their minds, create interest and prepare them for the path ahead.

Regulations impede progress
The adoption of solar in Wisconsin schools could advance further and faster if the state supports distributed solar equally with utility centralized solar. Current laws and regulations are holding us back from recognizing all the potential for solar in Wisconsin, including for schools.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association filed a lawsuit in Wisconsin Circuit Court in February 2021 to remove obstacles preventing Wisconsinites from benefitting from clean energy development.

The association’s filing requests the court to make certain that the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin focuses on regulating monopoly utility companies and does not illegally impede competitive clean energy alternatives for Wisconsin businesses and families.

MREA’s lawsuit specifically challenges policies that suppress Wisconsin’s clean energy economy. It addresses issues which impede financing options that would make solar more affordable. Additionally, it would eliminate a current order that prevents Wisconsin businesses and homes from utilizing market incentives to reduce their power consumption during peak hours. Resolving these issues would reduce the cost of energy to Wisconsin citizens.

What’s next?
Zero net energy school design is the next frontier. In such a building, the total amount of energy used annually by the facility is equal to the amount of renewable energy created on site.

In Wisconsin, this typically involves combining energy-efficient, geothermal schools with sufficient solar and battery systems to meet all energy demands. A related development is the increased use of adjustable angle, bi-facial solar to enhance winter production. This progress allows a school to move away from natural gas and the associated environmental emissions.

Taking the next step
All of us can take the next step toward greater sustainability. If you are planning a new construction or remodeling project, how can you incorporate solar? If a construction project isn’t in your future, explore how solar could be integrated in your current physical plant. If you were an early adopter, have you considered a battery system to enhance your solar system? If you’re capitalizing on the financial savings, but not equipping students for exciting careers, it’s time to implement a relevant curriculum into your culture.

Foster the spirit of curiosity and innovation that we desire in our students. Imagine how you can move towards zero net energy. Let’s all take the next step and reap the rewards–financially, environmentally, and educationally.

Northland Pines School District in Vilas County recently received bids for a 70 kW-dc system and approximately 60 kW-ac/150 kWh battery system to be installed at their St. Germain Elementary School.

The district had previously worked with Hoffman to install 430 kW-dc of solar at three other schools. The outcomes of these previous projects persuaded the district to add a solar and battery system at their only school lacking solar.

They understand that gaining experience with battery systems is useful as they aim for zero next energy in the future. The benefits of their previous solar projects included financial savings and providing on-site platforms for renewable energy education.

Due to limited summer school use, an important feature of the St. Germain design is to focus on winter generation with the use of bi-facial solar modules at s steep angle (approximately 50 degrees). Bi-facial modules generate additional power from reflected light on the back side of the module. This back-side power, combined with the steep angle, sheds snow to boost winter power generation. To spread the power generation over more hours during the day the project is using three orientations: southeast, south, and southwest. This reduces the need to store energy or sell power to the grid at midday. The batteries will store spare generation for use later.

A school district in southern Wisconsin recently opened a 126,000-square-foot elementary school. The primary requirement related to sustainability of the new elementary school was to be a zero-energy building. It is the first net-zero energy school in the state of Wisconsin, offsetting 100% of all on-site energy needs. The 646kW DC/500kW AC rooftop solar system and geothermal heating and cooling system are also leverage as educational tools for the school as well as the community at large. An interesting feature includes a viewing area to see the roof-mounted system. According to the school’s website, in one year the solar panel system alone offsets carbon emissions equivalent to the electrical usage of 96.4 homes, an average passenger vehicle driving 1,403,553 miles or burning 623,249 pounds of coal.

Another example can be found in a planned 400 kW-dc solar ground-mounted solar field and approximately 110 kW-ac/110 kWh battery system for the the new Clintonville Middle School and the adjoining existing high school. The middle school will also capitalize upon a geothermal system (ground-sourced heat pump HVAC system) allowing it to be the second net-zero energy school in Wisconsin. The solar acquisition is using third-party investors while the battery system is funded by a Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation grant. The batteries will store solar energy for peak demand arbitrage and shaving. This will allow them to purchase less costly power overnight to use the following day when prices are highest. The Clintonville Public School District is deeply interested in the educational benefits as well as the financial savings.

Mark Hanson, PhD, LEED AP BD+C, is director of sustainable services at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc., in Appleton, Wis. Before joining Hoffman, Dr. Hanson served as the executive director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin. (

Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP, is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. He has worked with more than 60 school districts on preK-12 educational facilities, providing needs assessments, planning, programming, and design services. (