Turning to solar can reduce energy bills for school districts, especially important during these belt-tightening times.
Schools around the country are going solar this summer as a way to help keep teachers from being laid off this fall during tough state budget cuts.
The school district of Scottsdale, Ariz., saved $300,000 on its electric bill this past year by installing solar panels, and superintendent David Peterson says that money has kept six full-time teachers from losing their jobs.
By the end of the summer, 17 of Scottsdale's 32 schools will be generating electricity with rooftop photovoltaic panels. Some are being installed in parking lots where they'll provide shade for students' and teachers' cars.
"We are in the Persian Gulf of sunshine," Peterson told Discovery News. "There should be no reason we shouldn't take advantage of it."
More than 500 schools in 43 states have installed solar panels. The uptick in installation is a direct result of solar-power costs, which have fallen by more than one-third over the past three years, according to estimates by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C., and GTM Research, a Greentech Media Inc. unit in Boston.
The Scottsdale school panels are being installed by the San Mateo, Calif.-based firm SolarCity, which allows residential, commercial and government customers to lease the solar panels instead of buying them, a novel financing scheme that keeps initial costs down.
SolarCity picks up the installation costs up front and charges the schools a yearly lease payment which usually lasts 15 to 20 years. Scottsdale was paying 11 cents per kilowatt hour until it switched to solar power, which is now costing them 7 to 9 cents per kilowatt-hour.
"We're saving 2 cents per kilowatt-hour," Peterson said. "It's money we can put back in hiring teachers."
By the end of the lease period, when the panels are completely paid for, the district will save an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million per year in utility costs, Paterson said.
Under the lease agreement, all maintenance costs are picked up by SolarCity, which also receives the federal tax breaks for renewable energy.
SolarCity is installing panels in 150 schools in 11 states, including cloudier locales like Oregon, Washington and New Jersey.
Some are small districts like Lancaster, Ca., in the Mojave Desert, others ritzy private schools like Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., where President Obama's two daughters attend class.
"In a time of real tight budgets, this can be a saving grace to these schools," said SolarCity spokesman Will Craven.
Schools in Davis, Berkeley, San Jose, Chico, Calif., New Haven, Conn., are installing solar panels this summer.
When classes are out of session, schools can put their excess generating capacity in a "kilowatt bank" and then tap the account during the high-demand months during school year. The company also installs software that allow students in the classroom to track energy consumption using simple computer graphics and charts.
"We are making an active effort to reducing our carbon footprint," Peterson said. "And as a bonus, a lot of these installations are being done in the parking area so we have shade for lot of people."