Extra Credit: Maximizing the Benefits of Solar in Schools
While across the country America’s schools have been shuttered this spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sun continues to shine. More than 1,000 megawatts of installed solar capacity from nearly 5,500 K-12 school buildings continues to generate clean energy and cost savings. With decreased electricity consumption from closures, sizable amounts of solar credits are building up for schools participating in utility net metering programs.
Unfortunately, because in many states excess net metering credits expire after 12 consecutive months, the schools may lose some of that value. In most states, the utility company ends up with the credits. With the public having paid for that generation in the first place, there is a better way to use those solar credits before they evaporate from school balance sheets.
Learn to share
We explored the idea of “solar sharing” in a 2017 blog that envisioned a regulatory pathway to enable residential producers to donate excess solar credits for a positive purpose like low-income energy assistance, for example. Here’s how it works: The utility aggregates monthly kilowatt-hours from participating producers, and then the total excess generation is converted to a dollar value based on the net-metered price. This value is delivered to a third-party administrator for bill assistance and low-income energy efficiency programs. Some states have now adopted just such a mechanism, including Utah, and more recently, Colorado.
As communities grapple with the pandemic’s economic fallout, having the flexibility to direct accumulated savings from solar investments adds needed resources for community resilience. In addition to bill assistance, third-party administrators could direct the value of expiring credits to food banks or community action agencies to help meet growing demands.
Do the math
School communities are already gaining big benefits from solar, including budget savings, curriculum enhancement, and broader health and environmental benefits. In many communities, schools serve as local emergency shelters, another important driver for investing in distributed generation (Florida’s SunSmart E-Shelters program, for example). But there’s so much more potential yet to be tapped from over 100,000 educational institutions nationwide. With an aggressive uptake of solar by the education sector, a recent study estimates an annual reduction in health, environmental and climate change damages worth a staggering $4 billion.
Our schools have continued to educate and feed students to the best of their ability through the COVID-19 crisis. By enabling sharing of solar credits, regulators can help schools and other solar producers deliver benefits well beyond the classroom.