Schools make bank on solar

Principal David Thursday standing in front of the solar field at Tombstone High School  Photo By Lexus Scott Arizona Sonora News Service

Drive down Highway 80 into Tombstone and look to the left.

A sprawling yellow school reveals itself and to its left stands a little patch of blue. Solar is shining at Tombstone High.

Over the past 10 years, school districts in Arizona have been making the transition to solar energy. One of the early adopters to the solar trend in Southern Arizona was Tombstone High School.

The school opened in 2006 and the panels joined the campus in 2012. REC Solar installed the panels as a part of a 12-school program by Arizona Public Service (APS). APS is the electric service provider for 11 of the 15 counties in Arizona. The panels were at no cost to Tombstone High School and the other schools including three in Bisbee and Prescott, two in Globe, and one each in Casa Grande, Tempe and Tucson.

According to the 2014 Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) report, more than 3,700 K-12 schools in the United States have installed solar panels, 226 were installed in K-12 schools in Arizona. Almost ten percent of K-12 schools in Arizona have solar panel systems installed.

Many of the panels installed in the schools were financially supported by grants and donations. Some schools chose the power purchase agreement (PPA) approach. With this plan, school officials put money down and have flat or yearly payment increase. The PPA approach is recommended by electric companies for schools installing smaller systems.

Arizona ranks third in the nation in green energy production from solar panels installed in K-12 schools according to the SEIA. The cities in Arizona with the most solar panels, according to data from July 2014, were Phoenix with 26 schools and Yuma with 20. This does not account for the 40 schools that installed panels in Tucson between late 2014 and the summer of 2015.

In 2013, Tucson Unified School District developed the idea of the “Solar Project” and in 2014 many of the sites underwent construction. That same year the Tanque Verde Unified School district decided to add panels to all four of its schools.

The TUSD “solar project” is an 18-month plan to install solar panels at more than 40 schools in the school district. According to the TUSD, the project was created to save more than $11 million in energy costs over the 20-year life of the project.

The project has been a success so far, gaining TUSD the No. 2 spot on the Top 30 K-12 Schools List from the Environmental Protection Agency for green power. According to the EPA, the TUSD’s green power usage equates to the electricity usage of nearly 2,000 American homes annually.

The success from Tombstone and TUSD has had a ripple effect on to other school districts in the Southern Arizona area. The Marana Unified School District will install solar panels at nine schools in the district, after seeing success from the eight schools where solar panels were previously installed.

According to Tamara Crawley, public relations director for MUSD, the school district anticipated reapplying for more Renewable Energy Credits (REC’s) from Tucson Electric Power. The remaining schools in the district, used Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBS) to fund the installation and cost of the panels. The CREBS program is a federal program for public entities in alignment with President Obama’s plan to combat climate change.

According to the MUSD, it projects about $4 million savings over the 20 years of the program.

“Utilities are the second largest expenditure in the school district’s budget, right under personnel costs. On average the district spends just over $4.1 million annually. Through lowering utility expenses dollars can be allocated to other areas in the maintenance and operations school budget,” said Crawley.

This year, Gov. Doug Ducey cut $123 million of funding for non-classroom spending. The state savings on its utilities from solar installations could ease those cuts.

“The addition of solar at the District’s remaining schools will save an additional $175,000 annually,” said Crawley. The district has already saved over $500,000 from the existing panels.

Lexus Scott is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at lexusscott@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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