Solar on Schools brings clean energy to school rooftops

October 9, 2023
Minnesota's Solar on Schools Program creates significant cost savings for schools while enriching students’ education, creating green jobs and benefiting the economy.

Program background

Minnesota has taken a step towards fostering a cleaner and brighter future for its students, communities and the economy with the establishment of the groundbreaking Minnesota Solar on Schools program. Aimed at increasing solar installations on K-12 schools and community colleges, this initiative holds significant benefits for both the state’s educational system and its carbon footprint.

Solar on Schools was established in 2021 with the goal of promoting solar energy adoption in schools. The program started with a budget of $7.5 million, which was allocated to provide grants for schools to implement solar energy systems. According to the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MNSEIA), the program aimed to distribute $7.5 million in grants to around 80 schools across 45 school districts in the State of Minnesota. These grants would cover the costs associated with installing solar panels and related infrastructure, making it easier and more affordable for schools to transition to solar energy.

In May 2023, the Solar on Schools program received a significant boost in funding. The Omnibus Environment, Natural Resources, Climate and Energy Finance and Policy bill (HF2310), which was passed by the state legislature, allocated an additional $29.3 million to the program. This substantial increase in funding enables the program to expand its reach and provide grants to even more schools. With the additional funding, more schools in Minnesota will benefit from the installation of solar energy systems, further promoting renewable energy adoption in the education sector.

The program has a track for schools that are customers of Xcel Energy and another track for schools outside of Xcel’s service territory. The Xcel track, SolarRewards for Schools, is part of Xcel’s larger SolarRewards program. The SolarRewards for Schools program in Xcel territory offers financial assistance to K-12 schools and state colleges/universities through a performance-based incentive of $0.04/kilowatt-hour for 10 years, regardless of system size or financial need, and an up-front payment ranging from $0.10 to $1.10/watt, depending on project size and income qualification. At least 50 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch can classify schools as “income-qualified,” with Xcel required to allocate 40 percent of the program budget to support such schools, ensuring access to assistance for all educational institutions.

Schools outside of areas covered by Xcel Energy can apply for the program under another track, Solar for Schools Grant Program, which is administered by the Department of Commerce. The Solar for Schools Grant Program has two application periods annually, one from January to May and another from July to November. The program uses a tiered system based on tax base per student to determine grant sizes, and the Department works with Clean Energy Resource Teams to provide technical assistance to schools throughout the application process, including guidance on energy usage, interconnection, net metering, power purchase agreements and solar curriculum development.

Untapped potential

Solar panels

School rooftops provide ample surface area and receive a significant amount of sunlight, making them well-suited for solar energy generation. Despite these advantages, Minnesota has not fully utilized the potential of its school rooftops for hosting solar projects.

Although it ranks 11th in the nation for solar capacity on school buildings, Minnesota still has two thousand school rooftops with the potential to host money-saving solar projects. The primary challenge hindering solar adoption has been school districts’ tax-exempt status. As tax-exempt entities, schools are ineligible to benefit from certain state and federal tax credits that are usually available to other organizations and businesses investing in solar projects. These tax credits can significantly offset the upfront costs of installing solar panels, making the investment more affordable.

By allocating significant financial resources, the Solar on Schools program helps bridge the financial gap and makes solar installation more economical for educational institutions. With the program’s grants, schools can cover a considerable portion of the upfront costs associated with solar panel installations, making it a more feasible and attractive option for them.

Benefits for schools

The most significant benefit of the program for schools is the reduction of energy costs. Energy expenses typically rank as the second-highest budget expenditure for public school districts in Minnesota. By embracing solar energy, schools can stabilize and lower their energy expenses, resulting in substantial savings. Through a unique financing model, the Solar on Schools program offers fixed-term energy payments, yielding significant utility expense savings during the term, followed by free energy from the solar array for the remaining lifespan of the system.

Additionally, on-site solar installations offer educational opportunities for students and teachers alike. Schools can integrate solar projects into their curricula as powerful teaching tools, sparking student interest in clean energy, environmental issues and the sciences. The program provides standards-aligned solar education modules to engage students in real-world problem-solving and expose them to potential career pathways in renewable energy.

The benefits of solar are already visible to Marshall Public Schools, the first district to receive a Minnesota Solar for Schools Grant. The district now has five solar arrays on various schools. As of May 2023, the district has saved $5,400 from the use of solar energy, and they expect to save approximately $22,000 per year. Impressively, the arrays have a projected lifetime savings of $700,000. The grant covered 85% of the total $585,000 cost and the district expects to recover the out-of-pocket cost of $87,792 within four years.

Boosting Local Economies

The Minnesota Solar on Schools Program has implications for the local economy. As the state aims to expedite solar adoption, the program will create jobs in the solar industry, contributing to economic growth and stability. The increased demand for solar installations will foster a thriving renewable energy sector, providing employment opportunities and attracting investments to the state.

The program prioritizes income-qualified schools, ensuring that they benefit from reduced utility bills. This financial relief allows districts to allocate resources more efficiently, potentially preserving teaching staff, investing in curriculum, updating technology and introducing new extracurricular programs. The infusion of funds into local communities also supports economic development, benefiting small businesses and stimulating economic growth.

Catalyzing Workforce Development

Beyond financial savings and carbon footprint reduction, the Minnesota Solar on Schools program will play a valuable role in workforce development. As students gain exposure to solar energy technologies, they are better prepared for in-demand jobs in the renewable energy sector. By aligning solar education with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum, schools prepare a workforce capable of tackling complex challenges, as discussed in this MinnPost article.

Solar installations also present hands-on learning opportunities, allowing students to analyze current data and explore energy production within their school and community. This experiential learning enhances critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills, which are essential in an ever-evolving job market.

The Minnesota Solar on Schools program is helping schools unlock the potential of solar installations on school buildings. The program not only offers substantial energy cost savings for schools but also sparks student interest in renewable energy. As the state embraces solar on a larger scale, it is well-positioned to create clean energy jobs, reduce its carbon footprint and inspire future generations to build a more prosperous Minnesota.

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