There are many ways for a school to save money on energy bills. One really great way to save money, as well as to provide a useful education resource, is by fitting solar panels. This article will explain why solar on schools makes so much sense, what campaigns are out there supporting solar on schools, how to fund them and things to watch out for when you are considering going solar.
This article is mainly concerned with solar panels that generate electricity, called photovoltaic solar. There is however, another type called solar thermal which generate heat for hot water. The installations are typically cheaper than solar PV panels, and there is a subsidy called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which allows solar thermal to have similar rates of return and payback periods as solar PV. Solar thermal can be a great option for schools with large hot water heating requirements, such as swimming pools, showers or catering.
Why go solar? The cost of solar has been dropping hugely in recent years, with a 99 per cent drop in costs in the last 30 years. Much of this has come in the last 10 years due to manufacturing efficiencies and a maturing UK supply chain. This means that, despite subsidies falling by around two thirds since 2011, there’s never been a better time to install solar. Additionally, solar and schools are a great match from a system point of view: schools use most of their power during the day, exactly when the sun is shining.
As well as a purely economic decision, solar on school roofs can be useful for learning by providing a starting point for a discussion on energy, climate change and how to live in a more sustainable way. It also demonstrates the school’s commitment to put its teaching on sustainability into practice.
Helping hands There are many supportive institutions that run campaigns to help schools get to grips with solar. One such campaign is Run on Sun by Friends of the Earth. Anna Watson, Senior Campaigner, explains: “We launched our Run on Sun campaign because we wanted to make it as easy as possible for schools to go solar. Solar power can bring real benefits to schools through financial and carbon savings and be a great educational resource for the children. We’ve produced a how to guide for schools to inspire them to get started and we’ve been calling on the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to get rid of red tape so that schools can borrow money for solar panels, just like households can.
“We are also working closely with a number of councils to support them in offering solar to schools and we are hosting events and encouraging councils to share information and tips so that they can learn from each other.”
Other campaigns aim to get to grips with the nitty-gritty problem at the heart of any new investment a school makes: the money. Solar Schools, a project by the charity 10:10, provide a package of resources to support schools crowdfund the cost of solar panels, to not just help them pay for the panels but to do so in a way that gets the whole community excited and involved. This is beneficial in boosting their budgets and building community.
Amy Cameron, community crowdfunding manager, explains more: “Solar Schools began to help schools overcome the financial barriers to installing solar. We provide a package of support to help schools raise the funds they need and bring renewable energy to the heart of the community. So far, we’ve worked with 65 schools around the country who’ve raised over £440,000 saved over 2,000 tonnes of CO2 and ensured 100 per cent of volunteers feel more skilled.”
How to fund your solar Although we like to think that all schools would go solar regardless of the cost, the financial case is really what makes the decision. In this regard, solar is a great choice. There are three ways that a school can benefit financially from a solar installation.
Firstly, through generation tariff. The system owner is paid for every unit of electricity (kWh) that is generated by the system.
Secondly, through export tariff. The system owner is paid an additional rate, called the export tariff, for electricity that is not used on-site. Depending on the size of the system, this exported electricity is measured directly or assumed (deemed).
Finally, through bill savings. Any electricity generated and used on-site will offset electricity bought from the grid. This means that less electricity needs to be purchased, and therefore there will be savings on energy bills.
There are various different ways in which a solar installation can be paid for. The first, and simplest, is to pay for the installation outright and earn your investment back in the three ways described above. It typically takes less than 10 years for the system to pay back the initial cost, depending on factors such as installation size, price and location.
If the funds are not directly available to pay for the system, borrowing the money may be possible. Capabilities for schools to borrow depends on the type of school in question, so it is best to make some enquiries to see if this is a possible route to go down. The Run on Sun campaign is working to try and enable as many schools as possible to have access to this financing option.
Another way is to have the cost crowd-funded, such as with the 10:10 Solar Schools campaign. This relies on the goodwill of those not expecting a financial benefit for their donations, and could be a good option if it is expected that donations will be able to fund the system.
Finally, there is the so-called ‘free solar’ or ‘rent a roof’ option. In this case, an external company effectively rents your roof, installs solar panels on it and retains the subsidy payments. The school pays nothing upfront and buys the electricity from the installation cheaply through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). There are, however, important things to bear in mind about these agreements. (See box: Power Purchase Agreements).
It may be worth engaging the services of an independent consultant who can draft a technical specification, liaise with an installer as well as inspect the finished system prior to handover: this should give you some additional piece of mind. If you wanted to deal direct with your solar installer, see the box ‘what to ask your installer.’
Solar Independence Day The STA runs an award-winning annual celebration of solar called Solar Independence Day, which this year is taking place on Friday 3 July and Saturday 4 July 2015. Last year’s event was the company’s first, with many schools attending local solar farms, seeing the dual usage of agricultural farming as well as generating electricity, discovering the biodiversity measures that many farms use to attract insects and birds through use of wildflower meadows as well as learning how solar is a home-grown solution to the UK’s energy crisis. This year there is a desire to go bigger and better, extending this to showcase commercial rooftop solar, household solar and solar on schools, as well as solar farms.If your school has solar and you would like to invite people to come and learn about it, if you would like to organise a trip to a solar farm, or even if you would simply like a solar-specific lesson plan, please get in touch at the Solar Trade Association to get involved.
Schools aim to provide pupils with the skills and drive to make an impact on the world. Solar on the roof of your school can save money, help you go green and provide a useful example for teaching children about leaving the world in a better state. After all, education is an investment in the future – why not make another and go solar?