What’s the biggest motivator for going solar? Whether it’s a home, a business, or a municipality, the answer is the same: cost savings. That’s no less true for schools.

Of course the benefits of solar don’t stop there but include boosts to the economy, public health, national security, and the environment. Schools can also add an important educational component to the list.

The scholastic solar trend

A new report, Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools, highlights the many benefits of going solar for schools and their communities. The report also shows how many schools have already gone solar and the huge potential for many more to follow suit.

This first nationwide assessment of scholastic solar in the U.S. was prepared by The Solar Foundation (TSF), with data and analysis support from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). It was funded through a grant provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot program.

The results? America’s K-12 schools have become major solar adopters over the last decade, soaring from just 303 kW of installed capacity at the end of 2003 to an impressive 457 MW by the end of 2013. That’s all while reducing carbon emissions by 442,799 metric tons annually, the equivalent of saving 50 million gallons of gasoline a year or taking nearly 100,000 cars off U.S. highways.

As is the case with the solar industry at large, more schools are going solar as installation costs decrease.


Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation, called out the many benefits of solar for schools: “Solar enables schools to save money, enrich learning and keep teachers in the classroom – all while providing local jobs and generating emissions-free electricity,” she said. “With five times as many solar schools today than in 2008, it is clear that the solar schools movement is gaining momentum and providing kids with the greatest benefit.”

To sum it up in terms of the report’s findings:

  • 3,752 K-12 schools in the U.S. have solar installations — which means that nearly 2.7 million students attend schools with solar. More than 3,000 of these systems on schools were installed in the last six years, and the period 2008 – 2012 saw a compound annual growth rate of 110%.
  • These 3,727 PV systems have a combined capacity of 490 MW, and generate roughly 642,000 MWh of electricity each year. That represents a combined $77.8 million savings per year in utility bills, an average of almost $21,000 per year per school.
  • Nearly half of the systems currently installed are larger than 50 kW, and 55 schools have systems that are 1 MW or larger. About a quarter of the PV systems at schools are smaller than 5 kW.
  • As schools system sizes increase, so does the incidence of third-party ownership.
  • Excluding small demonstration systems, the median system size of K-12 school PV systems is 89 kW (approximately equal to 18 average residential solar PV systems).
  • Solar potential remains largely untapped. Of the 125,000 schools in the country, between 40,000 and 72,000 can go solar cost-effectively.

Huge untapped potential

This last item is huge, and has major implications at a time when schools are so poorly funded. “An analysis performed for this report found that 450 individual school districts could each save more than $1,000,000 over 30 years by installing a solar PV system,” said SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch. “That’s a lot of money. In a time of tight budgets and rising costs, solar can be the difference between hiring new teachers – or laying them off. Just as importantly, solar is also helping to fight pollution, providing hope for our children, as well as for future generations of children.”

To see this at a glance, check out this wonderful interactive map SEIA and TSF have provided. It shows not only existing installations but also the potential for many more schools to save with solar:


Overcoming challenges

What’s stopping more schools from going solar? Schools do face some challenges. The major ones:

  • Financing: Schools, since they lack a tax liability, are unable to take advantage of tax credits. But they have been creative in finding a range of financing options, including bond measures and third-party ownership.
  • Procurement and maintenance: Schools have run into issues with developers, or with roof warranties, which points out the importance of having the right documents in place to protect their interests.

The report also notes the importance of communications in getting the community and school board on board with the idea of solar. As is the case in other sectors, this may be the biggest hurdle schools face in going solar — they just don’t realize how big the benefits are. This report should go a long way toward changing that.