Solar-Powered Schools

Photocredit: The Green Schools Alliance

When bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he knocked over those temples of finance, he famously replied: “Because that’s where the money is.”


And yet, even with a growing understanding of global warming and the realization that fossil fuels are finite, we’re having a hard time implementing Mr. Sutton’s wise, if obvious, rule: get the biggest bang for your buck. (Actually, Sutton’s rule is more accurately rephrased as “getting the biggest bucks for your bang.”)

Every day, millions of children, tweens and teenagers, leave their homes to spend the day in  school. And no matter how “green” parents try to make things at home, an enormous amount of energy is used to keep the kids cool (on hot days) and warm (on cold ones). According to the Green Schools Initiative, US schools spend around $6 billion dollars a year on energy.

A couple of other important things about schools — they usually have large amounts of roof space. And schools are mostly occupied when the sun is out. It should be easy to put solar panels up on the old rooftop and generate clean, renewable energy.

It should be. But it isn’t.

Our regulatory system acts as a kind of beauracratic bank vault, keeping eletrons locked up, so that we have to pay a utility to burn more fossil fuels and produce eletricity the old fashioned way — expensive, polluting, wasteful.

That didn’t make much sense to the Scottsdale, Arizona school system. With 300-plus clear days a year, they thought about the sun the same way Willie Sutton thought of banks.

That was a year ago. Last Wednesday, the district received approval to sign a contract with a solar installation company to buy electricity at a reduced rate from solar panels owned by the company and placed on the school’s roof.

Two major hurdles had to be cleared (the full story is here).

  • The state legislature had to pass a law allowing schools to buy electricity from an entity other than a traditional utility. That legislation was signed into law this summer.
  • The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), which regulates utilities, had to decide if non-utilities could sell power to schools. The ACC ruled this week that the Scottsdale schools could, as a special case, enter into power purchase agreements with the California-based company, SolarCity.

Solar panels will be gracing the rooftops of two Scottsdale high schools soon. As for other schools throughout Arizona — they’re awaiting a finally ruling by the ACC. Are companies like SolarCity and SunRun (which has a similar program) “utilities” subject to ACC regs? And if they are, what regulations should apply?

The good news is that the ACC has been as pro-renewable power and consumer-friendly as any in the nation, under the leadership of chairwoman Kris Mayes. The head of the Vote Solar Initiative, Adam Browning, has called her “a rock star” of the solar movement.

The bad news is that even with visionary leaders like Mayes, the old dirty energy system — the source of so many social, strategic, environmental and health problems — slows progress to a crawl — at a moment in history that requires a sprint.


Osh Gray Davidson is contributing blogger for Mother Jones and publisher of the online solar energy news service, The Phoenix Sun.