Why (and How) one North Carolina School is Going Solar

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As a society, we expect a lot from our schools. In addition to teaching basic skills, we hope our educational institutions will prepare students to be 21st century leaders. Part of preparing future leaders includes teaching students about environmental topics and helping them develop tools to understand and address environmental challenges.

One environmental topic that many schools are now trying to incorporate into their curricula is energy (in particular the role of energy efficiency and renewable energy), but these can be tough ideas to teach. Energy brings together complex concepts, from the science of electricity to broader questions of how our energy use impacts the environment. In the face of this challenge, schools have a unique opportunity to educate through real-world application of concepts and hands on projects. Schools are in a unique position to become public leaders in taking advantage of new improvements in technology and growing renewable energy markets. Schools have predictable electrical consumption, teachers who are able to take advantage of new educational tools, and generally have enough real estate to install new energy systems.

Challenges to Implementing Renewable Energy Projects in Schools

Solar power in particular seems attractive at local schools. In 2014, North Carolina installed the 2nd most solar capacity in the country, and is currently 4th in the United States for cumulative capacity installed. By implementing solar installations on site, school systems are able to save money on electricity over the long run, showcase new technology to students and community members, and allow kids to learn first-hand scientific and environmental concepts surrounding energy production and consumption.

However, energy projects, and solar in particular, can be challenging to implement. Energy projects are expensive, requiring large upfront investment without recouping initial costs for up to 15 years. Schools, given their size and energy consumption, would have to spend many thousands of dollars to install systems that make significant impacts to energy consumption. In addition to the upfront costs, schools are unable to take advantage of the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (SITC) because of their 501(c)-3 nonprofit status. These credits provide 30% of the costs to the company that installs, develops or finances a new solar project.

One way some nonprofits have been able to address these challenges is through Solar Power Purchase Agreements (SPPA). A SPPA is a financial agreement in which a third-party developer owns, operates, and maintains a photovoltaic (PV) system, while a host customer (in this case the nonprofit organization) agrees to site the solar array on its property and purchases the system’s electric output for a predetermined period. This arrangement allows the customer to receive stable electricity prices, while the solar services provider receives valuable financial benefits such as tax credits, carbon offsets, and income generated from the sale of electricity. North Carolina legislation doesn’t currently allow for SPPA’s, but the number of states using SPPA’s to encourage investment in solar power is growing. Both California and New York are good examples of success with such policies.

What one School in NC is Doing to Overcome Challenges to Generating Alternative Energy On-Site

So what does a school in North Carolina do if it wants to take advantage of the economic, environmental and educational benefits of having an on-site solar installation?

Durham Public Schools (DPS), Durham County’s fourth largest employer and one of the area’s largest electricity consumers, is exploring ways to take energy production into their own hands. Like most consumers, DPS is faced with rising energy costs. Last year alone, the school system had to divert more than $472,000 from other budget areas to cover increased electricity prices. In total, DPS spends more than $9,000,000 on utility costs every year, and that is only expected to go up in the future as energy costs continue to rise.

As part of its strategy to address these challenges, in early February, C.E. Jordan High School in Durham, NC formally announced its partnership with the State Employees Credit Union (SECU) Foundation and NC GreenPower, a local non-profit aiming to improve the quality of the environment by connecting consumers with green energy and carbon offset providers. C.E. Jordan High School was one of four schools in North Carolina selected for a pilot program to receive grant funding for a solar photovoltaic (PV) installation. The proposed project will build a pole-mounted 5 kW solar array in the middle of C.E. Jordan’s campus, spanning roughly 20 feet by 20 feet. The new solar system’s electricity production will be monitored in real-time and integrated into curricula to be used to enhance current science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes.

NC GreenPower’s Solar Schools Pilot Program gives financial support to North Carolina schools that cannot afford a solar system or take advantage of any clean energy tax incentives due to schools’ status as 501(c)-3 non-profits. Launched on April 1, 2015, NC GreenPower provides partial grant funding for the cost and installation of a small 3-5 kW solar PV demonstration system with monitoring equipment and curriculum. Now in the second year of the pilot program, NC GreenPower estimates there will be funding for up to 10 school grants providing the lesser of 50% or $10,000 for each system. The SECU Foundation will provide a matching challenge grant of $10,000 to selected public schools who are successful in raising their portion of the funds. NC GreenPower aims to continue education and awareness efforts around renewable energy in communities across the state as well as provide lesson plans and curriculum as additional educational tools for educators and students in North Carolina.

So how did C.E. Jordan pay for this innovative project? The high school raised the needed $32,000 for the solar array through $20,000 of matching grants from the SECU Foundation and NC GreenPower and the remaining $12,000 through community donations, barbeque fundraisers, and fun events, which included teachers dying their hair and receiving pies to the face from students.

DPS also worked with the NC Clean Energy Technology Center (NCCETC), a state-supported research center which aims to advance our sustainable energy economy through education and providing support for clean energy technologies and policies. The NCCETC released a report this February, “Repower Our Schools”, which outlines several pathways through which DPS could install and produce 100% of their energy needs through on-site PV systems. The report concluded that, should DPS go 100% solar, it would save more than $12,500,000 over 25 years; these funds would be freed up to be re-allocated for other needed expenditures to support students.

We here at the EFC are looking forward to working with schools to help students, teachers, and community members understand these issues and think through the tough “how-to-pay” questions of environmental projects.

Have you heard of any other innovative energy or environmental projects at schools in North Carolina or around the country? Do you have any ideas that you think could help our schools become more sustainable? Comment below!

Noel Myers is an AmeriCorps member who joined the Environmental Finance Center in 2016 through the Conservation Trust of North Carolina’s AmeriCorps Project GEOS


  1. Dems

    Although I do not have any new innovative ideas about how schools can be more sustainable, I would like to say that installing a solar system is a very laudable idea. Not only would in save energy costs, it will serve as an ongoing object lesson for the students. I wonder how thing a going now?

    • Noel

      Hi Dems! You’re so right, schools + Solar make a lot of sense. Large roof tops far from shade, large AC energy loads, and electricity needs during the day when the sun is up!

      EFC actually helped East Chapel Hill high school apply and win a 30k Duke Energy grant earlier this year for solar at their school…progress being made!

      Now if only we could get more widespread adoption and some energy storage at schools…more work to be done!

  2. Earl Marquise


    This is truly amazing I am youth counselor and I would love to speak with someone personally.

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