In the early 2010’s, Pat Collins, a 7th grade life science teacher at Chisago Lakes Middle School — in Lindstrom, MN, about 35 miles northeast of the Twin Cities — was having a discussion about solar panels with his students. One asked why they couldn’t just use solar power at the school, so Collins said he would look into it and see.
A few school board meetings that eventually included student speakers (one of whom made her grandfather, a longtime school bus driver, cry from pride), several inventive fundraisers that included janitors paying students by the pound for gum spit into a bucket rather than stuck under desks, and several years later, the Chisago Lakes School District is now 100% solar.
“Our students don’t see solar energy as an alternative energy source. It is the energy source that has powered every building that they have ever learned in,” Collins says.
In the early 2010’s Chisago Lakes was leading the way, but they’re now one of a growing number of school districts that are using solar not only to save money and reduce their carbon footprints, but to increase learning and vocational opportunities for their students as well.
This is thanks in part to Solar in Schools, an initiative of Generation 180, a non-profit that inspires and equips people to take action on clean energy.
When the nearly 5-year-old group was starting out, they set out to focus on two of the largest energy consumption and emissions sources: buildings and transportation. “We did a landscape analysis of what was going on to see where we could have impact and also see where there’s a gap that we can fill based on what other non-profits are focusing on,” says Tish Tablan, Generation 180’s program director. “We landed on schools because we love the ripple effect that schools have — there’s a school in every community.”
According to Generation 180, 7,332 K-12 schools, or 5.5% of all public and private K-12 schools in the U.S., use solar. With a 139% increase in the amount of solar installed since 2014, 5.3 million students attend a school powered with solar today.
Tablan says that the work they do to help schools go solar easily and often spread by students going home and talking to their parents or teachers going solar in their homes.
Ripple effects have certainly been the case in Chisago County, which has branded itself the Solar Capital of Minnesota where solar now powers 20,000 homes. Thanks to the efforts of Collins and his students, they transformed what started with a two-year, $73,000 effort to install one 10 kW system on the middle school into a fully solar school district. Today all five of the district’s buildings have a 40 kWh solar display on their roofs consisting of about 15,000 panels. It’s hard to nail down the exact savings of the system because prices fluctuate, but solar will save the district between $3 and $6 million over 30 years, which goes back into the district’s general fund.
Other schools, like one in Batesville, Arkansas, are using their solar savings to address teacher attrition by raising salaries $2,000 to $3,000 on average.
Naturally, cost can be a prohibitive factor for many districts. Solar schools have found a way around them through third-party agreements like power purchase agreements (PPAs). Chisago Lakes got theirs through a six-year lease-to-own agreement. After that, the district owns them outright.
It’s not just rural districts that have the luxury of wide-open space to install solar fields that can transform their schools to solar.
“It’s not latitude, it’s attitude,” Tablan says, meaning that solar is an option nearly anywhere. New York City has a plan to install solar on the roofs of 50 of its public schools and other buildings.
Laura Capps — a passionate parent and self-described product of public schools in Santa Barbara who joined the district’s school board four years ago — began campaigning for the Santa Barbara Unified School District to go solar in 2018.
It was then that the city’s schools played an important role during the wildfire and mudslide disasters that devastated the community. During widespread power outages, schools were “where families could still get meals and city and country officials even did their daily briefings from one of the high schools,” Capps says. “It solidified for me and other district leadership that our schools need to be safe havens in the time of disasters.”
The district is now in the early stages of creating a microgrid solar system that will both provide and store energy at six sites and provide power alone at eight more sites across high schools, junior high schools, elementary schools, a district office, and a warehouse.
“A preschool was our first building. It’s a new building so it made sense to construct it solar-ready,” Capps says. “I like the symbolism of a preschool, that for these four and five-year-old children, solar is what they’re going to know in their lifetime.”
Editor’s note: We’ve corrected the source of the stat that 7,332 K-12 schools have solar.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.