PV goes to school
by V Mastaitis, Chair of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, USA

Schools make excellent showcases for solar energy. Rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems provide students with a close-up view and hands-on learning experience of renewable energy technology.


Schools can be a springboard for solar energy to make the leap into wider acceptance. Schools themselves consume lots of energy, particularly during the day when the sun’s energy is available. In addition to their main function, schools can also provide shelter in times of emergencies, when solar systems that do not rely on an outside infrastructure can prove invaluable. Schools are, therefore, ideal locations for PV systems and have the bonuses of great visibility in the community and students who are keen to take new ideas home to their families.

In the USA, many electricity utilities are taking advantage of these features by initiating solar programmes in schools. Some utilities fund these programmes through voluntary contributions from their customers. Others, such as Wisconsin Public Service Corporation and Central and SouthWest Corporation in Texas, take advantage of financial incentives from the US Department of Energy’s TEAM-UP project which is administered by the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group (UPVG). The most effective programmes provide the schools not only with the hardware, but also with teaching materials that can be used in mathematics and science classes.

Wisconsin smiles on solar

One of the most successful solar-schools programmes in the country is run by the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation (WPS). Called SolarWise for Schools, the programme is supported through voluntary, tax-deductible contributions by WPS customers on their electricity bills. The average contribution amounts to $1.70 per month (where $ is the US dollar). Currently, SolarWise for Schools is in the process of installing PV systems on all 63 public high schools in north-east Wisconsin.

The educational aspects of the programme are major selling points. Participating schools receive a three-week teaching module on renewable energy, which includes lessons on energy units and conversions, photosynthesis, biomass, the electromagnetic spectrum and solar energy, and how the components of a PV system work. SolarWise for Schools also holds a state-wide Solar Olympics where students race PV-powered cars and exhibit science experiments.

One of the first schools to participate in SolarWise for Schools in north-east Wisconsin, Green Bay East High School hosted the installation of a PV system on the roof of the gymnasium in 1996.

The 12 kW system saves the school an average of $2,100 in electricity bills per year, supports the science curriculum and provides learning opportunities for students. (See photograph on page 13.)

“Watts on Schools” in Texas

Texas, located in a sunnier climate than Wisconsin, also has several solar-schools programmes. For example, Central and SouthWest Corporation’s (CSW’s) Watts on Schools programme co-ordinates the activities of five local electricity utilities. For CSW, the primary goal is education. By the end of 1999, the electricity utility had 19 PV systems operating on school and education buildings.

CSW works with an engineering firm, Planenergy, which designs and installs the PV systems, typically rated at 4 kW, and operates them for ten years, during which time CSW pays it a monthly fee under a long-term lease agreement.

Planenergy has also created an educational package about the PV systems for use in classrooms. Students can monitor how much solar electricity is being generated on a minute-by-minute basis by reading meters mounted in the hallways. They can also load data detailing system performance onto the Watts on Schools Web site. Using these data, students are able to compare PV generation, PV system efficiencies and electricity consumption data from different schools.

Factors for success

From its experience of the solar-schools programmes, WPS has distilled some tips for success:

  • Carefully select the schools to participate.
  • A school with a strong community focus and support from public officials is likely to be a good choice.
  • Include a curriculum component from the beginning.
  • Clearly define the responsibilities of the utility, schools and installers in terms of who will own, insure, and maintain the equipment. It is important to have one office or individual that has ultimate responsibility for the success of the entire project.
  • Educate and engage the school maintenance staff.

Perhaps most importantly, most students enjoy working with solar energy, especially the “hands-on” activities. Young people are very aware of environmental problems and are receptive to a tangible response. They will take this experience of solar energy with them as they become the consumers and leaders of tomorrow.

For more information visit the Schools Going Solar Web site at: www.schoolsgoingsolar.org

This article contains excerpts from a Solar Today (May/June 1999) article, “Schools Going Solar” by Vicki Mastaitis, IREC; booklets 1 and 2 by the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group, by Gibson, Mayotte, et al.

The CADDET Renewable Energy Newsletter is a quarterly magazine published by the CADDET Centre for Renewable Energy at ETSU, UK.

The articles published in the Newsletter reflect the opinions of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the official view of CADDET.

Enquiries concerning the Newsletter should be addressed to Pauline Toole, Editor, CADDET Centre for  Renewable Energy, ETSU, Harwell, Oxfordshire OX11 0RA, United Kingdom. Tel: +44 1235 432968, Fax: +44 1235 433595.