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U.S. Schools Go Solar

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The report card is in, and thousands of U.S. schools are bringing home straight A’s for going solar.

In a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind study released today, America’s K-12 schools have shown explosive growth in their use of solar energy over the last decade, soaring from 303 kilowatts (kW) of installed capacity to 457,000 kW, 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.

A 150 kW system at Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro, Vermont. Photo credit: AllEarth Renewables / Trent Campbell, Addison Independent

Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools was prepared by The Solar Foundation (TSF)—with data and analysis support from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)—and funded through a grant provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot program.

The Solar Foundation’s report is the first nationwide assessment of how solar energy helps to power schools in communities across America. Most importantly, the report shows that thousands of schools are already cutting their utility bills by choosing solar, using the savings to pay for teacher salaries and textbooks.  What’s more, the report estimates that more than 70,000 additional schools would benefit by doing the same.

Click to view an interactive map showing where schools have installed solar energy.

Here are the report’s key findings:

  • There are 3,752 K-12 schools in the U.S. with solar installations, meaning nearly 2.7 million students attend schools with solar energy systems.
  • The 3,727 PV systems have a combined capacity of 490 megawatts (MW), and generate roughly 642,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity each year, which represents a combined $77.8 million per year in utility bills—an average of almost $21,000 per year per school.
  • Despite this promising progress, solar potential remains largely untapped. Of the 125,000 schools in the country, between 40,000 and 72,000 can “go solar” cost-effectively.

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And if you think that’s good news, then get a load of this: 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. That’s right—a million bucks!

A 31 kW system at Rainshadow Charter School in Reno, NV. Photo credit: Black Rock Solar

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.

The new report also found:

  • More than 3,000 of the 3,752 systems were installed in the last six years. Between 2008 and 2012, solar installations on U.S. schools experienced a compound annual growth rate of 110 percent.

  • Nearly half of the systems currently installed are larger than 50 kilowatts (kW) and 55 schools have systems that are 1 megawatt (MW) or larger. About a quarter of the PV systems at schools are smaller than 5 kW.
  • As schools system sizes increase, so too does the incidence of third-party ownership.
  • Excluding small demonstration systems, the median system size of K-12 school PV systems was found to be 89 kW (approximately equal to 18 average residential solar PV systems).

As is the case with the solar industry at large, the report found that more schools are going solar as installation costs decrease.   According to the SEIA/GTM Research U.S. Solar Market Insight report, by the second quarter of this year, national blended average system prices had dropped 53 percent since 2010.

So anyway you look at it—from economics to innovation to the environment—more and more U.S. schools deserve high marks for their commitment to America’s future.

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"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

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The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."