The cost savings and flexible applications of solar schools creates a brighter way forward for Florida’s students and taxpayers.
Can solar energy power bright futures for Florida’s schools?
How can Florida take advantage of its trademark resource, abundant sunshine, to power a better future for students and communities? By adopting affordable, reliable solar power to save money and keep dollars in the classroom.
Across the country and around the world, solar power is now often the cheapest source of electricity. Solar equipment’s dramatic price drop over the last 15 years have made it affordable for homes, businesses and yes, schools. By the end of 2021, more than 8,000 school buildings across the United States are reaping the benefits of solar to lower bills, reduce pollution, and increase energy resilience with always on power. Converting free sunlight into electricity allows schools to reduce or eliminate their electricity bills, freeing up scarce dollars to invest in educators, technology, and classroom materials. With a looming teacher shortage, Florida must deploy every available dollar to hire, train, and reward top top teachers.
Solar power works by collecting sunlight and converting it into electricity. Solar systems have no moving parts, make no noise while operating, and don’t produce any polluting gasses or particles. Modern systems require minimal maintenance, and are often warrantied for 20 years or more. Large solar arrays do require substantial surface area to generate enough power for a large building,but most schools and campuses have plenty of roofs, parking lots, and other open spaces to build large arrays that can power up buildings and provide shade from the blazing sun. Best of all, the fuel is always free, meaning no surprising price spikes to upset carefully balanced operational budgets.
As the technology has improved and the price has dropped, financing options have multiplied. Solar delivers incredible lifetime savings but does require an upfront investment, and for schools with multiple priorities, striking the right balance can be a challenge.
More than 4 out of 5 schools with solar energy have used third-party ownership programs to defray high upfront costs, but which are not allowed in Florida. The most common version is called a Power Purchase Agreement, where a provider owns the generating equipment and receives payment for the electricity produced. This arrangement is still not permitted in Florida, but there is help on the way in the form of federal programs.
The most important incentive is converting an existing Investment Tax Credit (ITC) worth up to 30% of a project’s cost into a “direct pay” program. Non-profit organizations- schools, churches, municipal governments- who previously could not capitalize on the tax break, can receive a 30% rebate from the federal government.for their investments. There are also grant programs for energy efficiency and solar investments targeted to low-income and rural schools. These funds, combined with prudent budgeting, municipal bonds and local incentives should put solar within reach of most of Florida’s schools.
Solar can save schools money on utility bills, and can also save on vehicle fuel costs! Electric buses are entering the market, and Florida has a dedicated pool of money to help schools electrify their fleets. The predictable usage and hours of operation make it easy to charge buses from on site solar, saving on fuel costs, and eliminating harmful tailpipe emissions from young children’s environments. There are even plans to use the large batteries on school buses as portable power stations that can be deployed to provide charging and cooling in the event of a disaster, or provide night time power to a solar school used as a shelter when the grid is down.
A solar power investment provides the key component and starting point for a virtuous cycle of lower costs, less pollution, and increased energy resilience and independence.
Don’t Throw Shade
The cost savings and flexible applications of solar schools creates a brighter way forward for Florida’s students and taxpayers. The opportunity is nearly unlimited.. As of 2021, only 280 schools in Florida were taking advantage of solar power, fewer than in smaller, less sunny states like Illinois and Massachusetts.
With so much money coming from the federal level, state lawmakers have a unique opportunity to leverage additional state funds for long-term investments in cost savings by providing targeted or matching funds. Florida lawmakers should help by protecting net metering, a billing mechanism where solar energy producers receive production credits on their bill, and by creating a carve out to allow leasing or third-party ownership programs for schools.
Third-party ownership was introduced in the solar schools bill proposed in 2019, but never adopted. One thing is certain, electricity bills will continue to rise in Florida, with one FPL rate hike hitting Floridians last January. The high price of natural gas means an additional charge coming soon, and helps to make the case for locking in steady, predictable electricity prices by flipping the switch to solar. We all want bright futures for our students, and safety for our communities and common sense cost saving investments can power our future.
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