Solar Schools

Powering K-12 education with solar energy

Energizing Education

 

Imagine this headline in the near future: "All Schools in Minnesota Utilize Solar Power." Wouldn’t it be amazing if solar energy powered the education of our state’s 845,404 students? It might not be so far off.

60 school districts in Minnesota already benefit from solar, and there has never been a better time for even more schools to take advantage of clean energy opportunities. A dramatic drop in the cost of solar panels, combined with new financing choices, has now made solar widely available.

 

Why now? There are many reasons, and here are the four most common:

  1. Financial. The cost of solar panels has dropped 65% over the last decade, and schools can avoid the upfront investment and ongoing maintenance requirements through third-party ownership.
  2. Educational. Access to solar allows students and teachers to connect STEM education with new technology on school grounds and with one of the fastest growing job markets in the state.
  3. Environmental. Solar schools offset an estimated 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from nearly 221,000 cars.
  4. Community Leadership. Schools are at the center of the community. A solar array is a great way to communicate that sustainability is a key value and inspire others.

Ok, so you’ve decided this sounds like a good idea.

But then you’re faced with lots of decisions:

  • Buy it outright or enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA)?
  • Rooftop, ground-mount or carport?
  • How can we work with our electric utility?
  • What rebates or other incentive can we tap into?
  • When and how should we engage the school board?

That’s where the Clean Energy Resource Teams—or CERTs—swing into action.

CERTs has been working with schools across the state to make solar a reality for years, and in the process, has developed unbiased tools and resources for other schools to utilize free of charge. Tools for site selection, requests for proposals, State contracts, calculators, and more are online and ready to use.

How can CERTs help?

 

We help schools understand energy efficiency and solar energy options.

Our experts will help you figure out how to take the right steps towards clean, renewable energy. We can provide technical assistance on the programs and initiatives below that will lead to energy efficiency, financial savings, community leadership, and STEM education curriculum that will help prepare students for a clean energy future.

 

Solar Schools Menu of Services (click to expand)

Get an Energy Assessment

  1. Contact Your Utility
    Many utilities provide energy assessments at either a low cost or free. Contact your utility to find out about available energy assessment options and rebates. A good start to find out about available incentives is the DSIRE website.
    Visit Website
     
  2. RETAP
    The Minnesota Retiree Environmental Technical Assistance Program (RETAP) employs skilled, retired professionals to provide facility assessments and community sustainability assistance to small businesses, institutions, and communities in Minnesota at no cost.
    Contact: Ralph Dickinson, 651-233-3374, rdickinson6881@gmail.com
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website  
     
  3. Local Energy Efficiency Program (LEEP)
    LEEP provides technical and contractual assistance to local governments seeking to utilize LEEP to complete detailed energy audits with pre-qualified contractors.
    Contact: Peter Berger, MN Dept. of Commerce, 651-539-1850, peter.berger@state.mn.us
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website

Guaranteed Energy Savings Program

The Guaranteed Energy Savings Program from the Minnesota Department of Commerce promotes awareness and implementation of energy efficient and renewable energy measures in public facilities to provide millions of dollars in annual energy savings in Minnesota. To do this, GESP supports you every step of the way—from identifying good projects at the outset to measurement and savings verification at the conclusion.
Contact: Peter Berger, MN Dept. of Commerce, 651-539-1850, peter.berger@state.mn.us
Service Area: Statewide
Visit Website

Energy Savings Partnership

The Energy Saving Partnership is a municipal lease program offered by the Saint Paul Port Authority in partnership with U.S. Bank. Local governments and schools have access to 100 percent financing and reduced interest rates for projects that incorporate renewable energy or result in energy savings. Interest rates are low due a significant loan loss reserve.
Contact: Peter Klein, 651-204-6211, pmk@sppa.com
Service Area: Statewide
Visit Website

Start by getting educated on options. CERTs provides technical assistance to understand the pros and cons of renewable energy options including community solar gardens, on-site solar, green pricing programs, and green tariffs. Your options and what might work best will vary based on your utility, energy usage, and goals. CERTs has resources on the following, and we'll cover on-site solar in-depth in the next section.

  1. Community Solar Gardens
    Community Solar Gardens are centrally-located solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that provide electricity to participating subscribers. Community Solar Gardens allow participating subscribers to gain many of the benefits of solar without having to install solar on their own building/at their own facility.
    Learn more
     
  2. Green Pricing
    Green pricing is an option offered by electric utilities that allows customers to support investments in renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. Through green pricing, participating customers pay a premium on their electric bill to cover the extra cost of the renewable energy.
    Learn more
     
  3. Green Tariffs
    Xcel Energy customers can sign up to utilize a blend of wind and solar energy. The program is fully subscribed but interested customers can sign up on a waitlist.
    Learn more

Choose your Site

  1. Solar Site Selection Checklist
    Thinking about where best to locate solar at your school property? This checklist helps you walk through your options.
    Download checklist
     
  2. Minnesota Solar Suitability App
    Wondering if a particular site in Minnesota is good for solar energy? This app can help.
    Visit website
     
  3. Solar for New Construction
    If you are considering solar on a building that hasn’t yet been constructed, you may need to conduct an energy model and you should ensure that the building is built solar-ready. You can start with these resources. 
    Grow Solar Toolkit
    Solar Ready Guidelines

Know the Rules

It is important to check in with your local city and county about ordinances that might be in place that would impact your solar project. Some local jurisdictions require setbacks or structural assessments, for instance. Your solar installer should know this process, but it’s worth learning in advance.
 

Understanding Financing Options

  1. Third-Party Financing
    Third-party financing is a popular means for local governments to finance renewable energy. Typically, the local government enters into a Power Purchase Agreement whereby they pay a fixed price per kWh for power generated by the solar array. The kWh rate is typically lower than the local utility rate. The third-party company installs, owns, operates, and maintains the solar array and can tap into tax benefits not available to the public sector.
    Visit Resource
     
  2. Energy Savings Partnership Funds
    The Energy Saving Partnership is a municipal lease program offered by the Saint Paul Port Authority in partnership with U.S. Bank. Local governments and schools have access to 100 percent financing and reduced interest rates for projects that incorporate renewable energy or result in energy savings. Interest rates are low due a significant loan loss reserve.
    Contact: Peter Klein, 651-204-6211, pmk@sppa.com
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website
     
  3. Solar Incentive and Rebate Opportunities
    Grant and rebate opportunities will largely depend on your utility. A comprehensive list of utilities that provide solar rebates can be found at the link below.
    Visit Resource
  • Xcel Energy Solar*Rewards
    Xcel Energy’s solar production incentive program provides $0.06/kWh for 10 years for “commercial” systems up to 40kW. Local governments are considered a commercial system.
    Visit Website
     
  • Xcel PV Capacity Credit
    Xcel Energy recently worked with the solar industry, regulators, customer advocates and other stakeholders to create a new, more easily understood PV Demand Credit. The new PV Demand Credit Rider is in effect for any customer with solar systems over 40kW with a single production meter. The bill credit is 6.9648 cents per kWh for solar energy generated between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
     
  • OtterTail Power Publicly Owned Property 
    OtterTail Power provides cash incentives to publicly owned facilities that install non-residential solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Publicly owned facilities receive $1,250/kilowatt (kW) of installed solar PV nameplate (DC) capacity—up to 50% of project costs—for systems 40 kW or less in size, based on nameplate capacity. 
    Visit Website
     
  • Minnesota Power SolarSense
    Minnesota Power’s SolarSense program provides rebates to reduce the upfront costs of installing solar. It is an incentive based on how much energy a customer’s PV system is expected to produce. Calculating the rebate depends on the design of the solar system—including tilt, orientation and shading profile—and an estimate of annual energy production from PV Watts (an online tool). To calculate the SolarSense rebate, a PV system’s estimated energy output is multiplied by $0.74/kWh. Systems are capped at 40 kW (AC) or less.
    Visit Website

 

Get Bids

  1. Model Request for Proposals (RFP)
    CERTs has a Model RFP for Third-Party Solar that you can download and adapt to issue your own request. CERTs will send out the RFP to its list of solar developers on your behalf.
    Visit Resource
     
  2. State of Minnesota Solar Master Contract
    A master contract is a base contract with pre-qualified vendors that outlines terms, conditions, and ceiling prices for design-build services. It allows for simpler, faster procurement by purchasing authorities. The State of Minnesota has a master contract for the design and installation of ground mount, pitched-roof, and flat rooftop solar installations. Individual projects may include energy storage and may be stand-alone or interconnected for net metering. The state will assist you through the RFP process. While your entity will “own” the procurement process, the state administers the master contract. To ensure your entity’s success, the state will provide templates and documents, will guide you through development of your site-specific RFP, will coordinate the bidding process, and will consult with you on the evaluation methodology.
    Contact: Jordan Wente, jordan.wente@state.mn.us or 651-201-2606
    Visit Resource
     
  3. Get Quotes from Solar Developers
    The Clean Energy Project Builder lists contractors in your area on our Clean Energy Project Builder directory.
    Visit Website

Decide on a Developer

Review and evaluate the proposals you receive based on your goals and budget. For an apples-to-apples comparison of financed proposals, you can use you can use the Solar PPA calculator (Xcel version or non-Xcel version). The calculators compare bids and provide estimates of costs and savings over the term of the contract.
Visit Resource

Tell Your Story

You could be inspiration for others! Tell your neighbors, family, friends, colleagues, and local media outlets about your experience so they know how easy and rewarding it is to go solar. You might be surprised how influential you are! Need a helping hand? CERTs can provide guidance on communicating your success and help get the word out to local media.
Contact: Dan Thiede, thie0235@umn.edu, 612-626-0556
 

Host a Community Event

Get out your ribbon, giant scissors and cameras for a fun celebration of your success. CERTs will help get the word out and provide guidance to make your event a big win for your district.
Contact: Maggie Kozak, makozak@umn.edu, 612-626-0555
 

Host a Screening of The Power of Minnesota

The Power of Minnesota film is about people, their communities, and their stories about clean energy development around the state. Following the screenings, participants share conversations with their neighbors about what they learned and what surprised them about the film. This can be a great way to engage your broader community in a conversation about clean energy.
Contact: Dan Thiede, thie0235@umn.edu, 612-626-0556 
Visit Website

Integrate Renewable Energy into the Curriculum

  1. RREAL Solar Schools Curriculum
    RREAL’s “Our Solar Schools Curriculum Development” project brings age-appropriate, STEAM-integrated solar energy education to the K-12 classroom. Lesson plans include a ton of hands-on activities that cover everything from the basics of electricity, renewable energy public policies, considerations when installing renewable energy and renewable energy careers. This curriculum was designed in 2020 and incorporates the latest science standards. When completed in the fall of 2020, the curriculum will be available free online.
    Contact: Erica Bjelland, erica@rreal.org, 218-947-3779
    Visit Website
     
  2. Climate Generation
    Climate Generation has a comprehensive suite of curriculum for multiple subjects and grade levels, including a specific curriculum on energy that is available online and at no charge. These lessons introduce students to energy basics, emphasizes the connection between our energy use and consumption, the resulting impact on our climate and energy solutions that mitigate its impact.
    Contact: Lindsey Kirkland, lindsey@climategen.org, 612-278-7147
    Visit Website
     
  3. U.S. Department of Energy
    The U.S. Department of Energy has a wide variety of tools and resources for educators, including videos, coloring books, curriculums, teacher research opportunities and more. Resources are available in English and Spanish.
    Visit Website

Invite Energy Experts into the Classroom

  1. Citizen Utility Board (CUB)
    CUB is a non-profit consumer advocate for Minnesota residential and small business customers.  We can help support school district clean energy goals and projects by providing educational activities that complement community goals.  Example activities include interactive classroom or community talks and free energy bill consultations for households.
    Contact: Carmen Carruthers, carmenc@cubminnesota.org, 651-300-4701 ext. 2
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website
     
  2. Minnesota Energy Center of Excellence
    The Minnesota Energy Center serves as an information highway for energy education opportunities throughout the Minnesota State Colleges and University (MnSCU) system. The Energy Center of Excellence launched an “educate the educator” (E3) program that includes: (1) E3 Workshops that help teachers bring math and science classroom instruction alive; (2) Free classroom presentations, curriculum, lab kits, and industry tours; (3) Access to the Energy Trailers that bring complete instructional kits and curriculum guides to high schools across the state.
    Contact: Rose Patzer, rose.patzer@mnwest.edu, 320-564-5044
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website
     
  3. CERTs Regional Coordinators
    The Clean Energy Resource Teams have on-the-ground staff in each of our seven regions across Minnesota. Find your coordinator and invite them to provide a presentation and more.
    See Contacts
  1. Youth Eco Solutions (YES!) Teams
    YES! (Youth Eco Solutions) empowers youth in grades 7 to 12 to create solutions to today’s ecological challenges through hands-on. Annually, YES! impacts over 500 students, and as many as 20,000 community members. Through successful completion of over 1,200 ecological action projects in 12 years, YES! has demonstrated that youth are the innovators for solutions to today’s challenges while building the skills they need for their future. As one student commented, “I learned the power of what just 5 people can do to make a difference in my community.” We hope you will join the network of over 25 school districts that are currently hosting a YES! team and we can work together to make “Solar Possible” along with other earth-friendly projects. 
    Contact: Shelli-Kae Foster, shelli-kae@yesmn.org, 320-441-9254
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website
     
  2. Minnesota Renewable Energy Society (MRES) Solar Boat Regatta
    At the MRES' Solar Boat Regatta teams demonstrate knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to design and build boats powered by the sun. They compete in a number of races at a lake in Eden Prairie, culminating with a one-hour endurance race.
    Contact: Doug Shoemaker, dougs@mnRenewables.org, 612-308-4757
    Service Area: Statewide
    Visit Website
     
  3. Youth Environmental Activists of MN (YEA! MN)
    A core program of Climate Generation, Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota (YEA! MN) is a network of high school students taking action for a just transition to a resilient climate future for all.
    Contact: Jason Rodney, yeamn@climategen.org
    Visit Website
     
  4. GreenStep Schools
    Minnesota GreenStep Schools program a free and voluntary statewide best practices framework, community of practice, and recognition program for public and private K-12 schools and districts to reduce environmental impact and costs, improve health and well-being of students and staff, and provide effective environmental and sustainability education.
    Contact: Jonee Kulman Brigham, kulma002@umn.edu, 651-895-7834
    Visit Website

The MPCA is using Volkswagen settlement funds to reduce harmful air pollution, address climate change, and invest in a cleaner transportation future. Minnesota will receive $47 million total from the national settlement, and will distribute these funds in three phases over 10 years. In Phase 2 (2020-2023), MPCA will spend about $23.5 million, or half of Minnesota’s total. MPCA can use VW funds in two primary ways: fund vehicle replacements that take older, more polluting diesel vehicles off the road and replace them with new, cleaner models, and invest in electric vehicle infrastructure. To distribute funds, MPCA offers grant opportunities with a competitive application process.
Visit Website

Want to talk to a human?

Even after tapping into these tools, it’s always nice to talk to a human to ask questions, learn who else has installed solar, and get help all along the way. Peter Lindstrom with CERTs is ready and willing to help your school move forward with solar.

Downloads

Solar for Schools Factsheet
CERTs Schools Menu of Services
Brighter Future: A Study of Solar on U.S. Schools

Which school districts in Minnesota are using solar energy?

Here are a few examples of schools who are tapping into these benefits.

Pine River-Backus Schools

Pine River-Backus

 

The field and track behind Pine River-Backus High School is now home to a large solar array expected to cover about 80 percent of their electricity needs, at a discount to their typical electricity rates.

“Not only is the new solar array saving our school district money,” said Pine River-Backus Superintendent Dave Endicott, “it’s providing direct STEM educational opportunities for our students and getting them thinking about their own career opportunities in the quickly-growing clean energy industry.”

 

Red Wing

 

Red Wing Public Schools in Minnesota generates up to 120% of its district-wide energy consumption through a 6 MW community solar garden on school district property. The energy produced by the 15,520 solar panels is shared by the district’s six schools and the community. Over the next 25 years, the school district is projected to save $7.7 million in energy costs and to earn $1 million in lease revenue.

“It was really fun for me to go before the school board because you’re usually asking for money,” shared Kevin Johnson, Director of Buildings and Grounds with Red Wing Public Schools, and an important player for moving the solar installation forward. “It’s huge, because the millions of dollars the solar is generating goes not into my budget, but into the general budget where it can be used for books and stuff for kids.”

 

Chisago Lakes

 

Chisago Lakes School District flipped the switch on five rooftop solar projects in the district along with a Community Solar subscription. The solar panel systems will not only save energy dollars but also provide science learning opportunities for students and help to meet the district’s sustainability goals.

“Chisago Lakes Schools are projected to save $3-$6 million in energy costs over the next 25 years with these solar projects. That’s a lot of car washes and bake sales,” said Pat Collins, a Science Teacher at Chisago Lakes Middle School who was instrumental in making solar happen there. “But the really great part is that the students are learning about where power comes from and how clean energy will be part of their future.”

 
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