How one school system is going solar

The residents of Fremont, Indiana, a small town in America’s upper Midwest, have always relied on the sun to warm their fields and draw tourists to their lakes. Now they’re counting on it to power their schools.

“The technology has advanced so much in the last couple of years that it’s become more energy-efficient, more cost-effective for schools to get solar energy,” school superintendent William Stitt said.

The cost for individual homes in the U.S. to rely on the sun for electricity has dropped by more than 60 percent over a decade. The lower cost helped convince more than a million Americans to install solar panels on their homes’ roofs.

Startup cost

Construction of the solar project in Fremont will cost $3 million. But when finished, it will power all of the town’s school buildings. If it generates more electricity than the schools need, they will be able to sell some back to the power company.

Power will come from several rows of solar panels — 3,000–4,000 panels per row — on a 2.5-hectare field behind the middle school. The district will lease the equipment from the local power company for 20 years at a fixed rate.

“[It] is going to cost us approximately the same amount we’re paying for utilities today … for the next 20 years,” says Kim Quick, who heads school building operations. The equipment should last 40 years.

Free electricity, eventually

In 20 years, the school district will own the equipment outright, meaning it won’t pay anything for electricity.

Since the panels are always on, the district will save additional money by banking the unused electricity that’s generated when school is not in session.

“These work year-round. Even in a full moon they will produce electricity,” Quick said.

Solar panels on school roofs or over a parking lot would save most schools an average of $1 million over 30 years, according to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Schools Census.

Educational bonus

Going solar also offers schools an on-site, practical demonstration that teachers can use. Schools in the Fremont system will have a live display module that kids can visit daily to learn how much energy is being used and saved.

If all goes according to plan, Fremont School District’s new solar field will be up and running by midsummer 2017.

Looking further ahead, Superintendent Stitt said, “I’d love the community and the kids in 40 years to go, ‘Man, they made a great decision 40 years ago by creating this solar project!’”