Pop Quiz: What do You Get When You Install Solar on Schools?
By Amy Antoniolli, ISEA Board Member
If you answered smaller electricity bills, fewer greenhouse gases, and energy-savvy students, you are correct. On September 18, 2014, The Solar Foundation released the first of its kind review of solar in schools across the United States. The assessment, entitled Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools,  shows that schools are installing solar, cutting utility bills, and using the savings to pay for teacher salaries and textbooks.
Brighter Future identified 3,752 schools in the United States that have already installed solar energy systems, and according to the report, the potential for more is tremendous. The 3,752 schools with solar represent 3 percent of public and private K-12 schools and 5 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. 
The large, flat rooftops that typically characterize k-12 school buildings are excellent platforms for rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar thermal systems. The study estimates that more than 72,000 schools could potentially be candidates for cost-effective investment in solar. Solar installations on schools are a valuable opportunity for students to see science at work. They also provide hands-on tools for teachers to demonstrate scientific, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts and inspire students to understand the value of renewable sources of energy.
Nationwide, the installed school PV systems have a combined capacity of 489,791 kW and are estimated at generating more than 642,000 MWh of electricity each year. To put this in context, the average American household uses 10.7 MWh of electricity each year. Generation from the PV systems currently in place on schools offsets the purchase of roughly $77.8 million worth of electricity per year. This combined energy value is roughly equivalent to 155,000 tablet computers or nearly 2,200 new teachers’ salaries per year. 
Illinois is listed as third in the number of photovoltaic installations on k-12 schools. However, Illinois ranks 22 in solar capacity. This seems to indicate that many of the installations on schools in Illinois are smaller and are likely used as demonstration and education systems.
The Solar Foundation performed an outstanding review of available information to produce this extensive and well-researched assessment. Note, however, there are some data errors.
Brighter Future listed my childrens’ elementary school as having a 10kW array installed in 2014, but the 10kW array was actually installed in 2002. The Solar Foundation recognizes that the information may not be complete and hopes to update it on a regular basis.
The cost of PV systems has dropped dramatically in recent years. Brighter Future shows that decreases in the average installed cost of solar have resulted in larger systems that not only provide educational value for students, but also significant cost savings for school districts. It is well-recognized that funding is the biggest obstacle for schools to go solar. The report shows, however, that schools are creative. The interviews of 15 representatives from solar schools showed that no school relied solely on direct cash payments for their systems. Any cash put into the project by the school – from bond measures, capital or operating budgets, or other means – were combined with other key forms of financial support, such as grants, loans, rebates, and SRECs. In Illinois, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Climate Cycle are two Chicago-based organizations that offer funding opportunities for solar installations on schools in Illinois. These groups are led by engaging and knowledgeable individuals dedicated to advancing the use of solar in schools.
Overall, Brighter Future is a great first nationwide assessment and shows that the future for solar in U.S. schools is indeed bright.
 Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools Report, Solar Energy Industries Association, Sept. 18, 2014 (“Brighter Future”).
 Of those, 3,727 were PV systems that turn sunlight into electricity. The remainder were solar heating and cooling systems that turn sunlight into heat which is typically used to heat water or air.
 Assuming an average tablet cost of $500 each and the 2011-2012 national average starting teacher salary of $35,672 (www.nea.org).
About Amy Antoniolli
Amy Antoniolli is an attorney practicing environmental law at the national law firm Schiff Hardin LLP. Amy routinely advises clients on compliance with environmental laws and regulations and represents clients before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Before coming to Schiff, Amy served as an attorney at the Illinois Pollution Control Board for five years where she advised board members on interpretations of Illinois environmental statutes and regulations, served as a hearing officer in regulatory matters, and wrote legal opinions in enforcement cases, permit appeals, and requests for relief from regulations. Earlier in her career, she served as assistant counsel for the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. She volunteered with the k-12 education subcommittee in 2013 to help organize the first teacher’s workshop for fourth to sixth grade teachers and hopes to continue to expand ISEA’s educational resources in the future.