$100 Million for Solar Schools

Students at Rainshadow Community Charter High School in Reno, Nevada, celebrate the installation of their new 31 kilowatt solar array in 2010. So far, schools have gone solar.
Students at Rainshadow Community Charter High School in Reno, Nevada, celebrate the installation of their new 31 kilowatt solar array in 2010. So far, 3,752 American schools have gone solar. The National Solar Consortium is seeking to bring that number to 20,000 by 2020.

By Joseph Plummer

If you had $100 million to address climate change, what would you do with it? There are of course plenty of things that need to be addressed when it comes to climate change, and everyone will have different answers to this question. But, given that climate change is a problem that will undoubtedly cost trillions of dollars to address, we can probably accommodate more than a few solution sets.

The National Solar Schools Consortium is doing this exercise right now. The Consortium is a group of organizations that have banded together to accelerate the adoption of solar at schools and universities across the United States. The Solar Foundation has spearheaded the effort, and last year it published the first National Solar Schools Census, documenting the number of schools that have installed systems. This report highlights the 3,752 schools that have already gone solar and analyzes the potential for the rest of the over 120,000 schools in the United States. The Consortium has a bold vision: 20,000 solar schools by the end of the year 2020. So, how do we get there? This is the $100 million question.

How would you tackle this in just over five years? Of the 3,752 solar schools that already exist, about 3,500 of them had their systems installed in the last five years. So, if we continue at that pace with no intervention, we will be at about 7,500 solar schools by 2020. If we consider the growing solar industry and increased financing options for schools, we might be able to anticipate an additional 2,500 solar installations at schools over the next five years — bringing us to 10,000 (still 10,000 short of of our goal). So, how do we get to 20,000? Is it even feasible?

If someone gave us $100 million, could we make it happen? Let’s pretend we only did small, 1-kilowatt installations that cost $10,000 on average. If we multiply that by 20,000 schools, we find that the total cost of the effort is at least $200 million. And that is if we did small installations. Imagine what the total cost of the effort would be if we attempted to make large installations happen. The question remains: If someone gave us $100 million, could we make it happen?

Yes. If someone gives you $100 million to fund a $1 billion solar schools initiative, you don’t spend the $100 million on installations, at least not entirely. Rather, you spend it on capacity building. One great example of capacity building is the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools. Another great example is the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps. These programs focus on leveraging a small amount of resources to create massive impact. Using money to leverage more money is a smart strategy, especially when you know you need significantly more money than you have. In the context of solar schools, capacity building might include developing solar school districts, making more financing available to schools, and empowering more school district leaders with the information and training they need to make the right decisions in support of these efforts.

Another way to generate more funds over time would be to create a solar schools endowment that grows from year to year while also funding solar installations at schools. The Virginia Environmental Endowment is a good example of how an endowment can create long-term impact. Another good example of turning a small amount of money into a large amount of money and resources is the Wind for Schools program initiated by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2005. The Department of Energy barely funded the effort, but the universities involved were able to leverage millions of dollars worth of resources.

If you had $100 million to address climate change, what would you do with it? The National Solar Schools Consortium would find a way to get solar installations at 20,000 schools and universities in the United States in less than five years. This is a knightly vision. This vision might seem unrealistic and will most certainly be subject to criticism. But this initiative is what daring greatly looks like. This is the kind of vision we should rally behind. As renewable energy and education communities unite behind the Solar Foundation, we will see that not only can renewable energy engage and inspire students, but it can also inspire a nation. Stay tuned.

Image credit: Flickr/BlackRockSolar

Joseph Plummer is a degree candidate in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech, expecting to graduate in May 2016. He currently works for a non-profit organization that works with schools and school districts on renewable energy and sustainability initiatives.

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