Arizona Schools Going Solar To Generate Energy, Revenue

By  Stina Sieg
June 03, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Many schools in Arizona are being powered by the sun, including Madison No. 1 Middle School in Phoenix.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Madison No. 1's panels both provide shade to students and the majority of electricity to the school.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
About a fifth of Scottsdale Unified School District's power comes from solar panels, like these at Desert Mountain High School.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Students are jazzed about the covered parking at Desert Mountain. Administrators enjoy the major savings the panels bring the district.

The Tucson Unified School District is installing solar panels at more than 40 of its campuses. That’s the biggest solar project for any school district in the country. But it’s got plenty of competition from other districts across Arizona, where more and more schools are going solar — including several in the Valley.

What’s the first thing you notice when you roll up to Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale? Solar panels, rows of them, raised up at an angle and shading a section of the school’s sprawling parking lot. Scottsdale Unified’s Rick Freeman explained the district gets about a fifth of its power from the sun.

“Well, there’s a few students who have contacted me and asking questions about it,” he said. “They’re excited about being green, if you will, and their school is a green school because they’ve got solar electric production.”

But what are they more excited about, being “green” or having covered parking?

“Covered parking is probably more exciting to them,” he said. “Especially as the weather warms up.”

For administrators, however, the savings is the most exciting thing. Freeman doesn’t have an exact estimate of that annual figure, but district-wide it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Freeman explained that some people were skeptical about solar at first.

“But we found out that working with these providers very closely and good negotiations and so forth, it’s been a win-win situation for both the providers and for the school district — as well as the utility companies,” he said.

The district owns some of its panels, and so all the energy those generate is free. Other solar panels were installed by solar companies at no cost ­to the district, with the agreement that the district pay the company for all the power those panels generate. But it’s at a fixed rate that’s far cheaper than the normal market price. That’s called a solar purchase power agreement, and it’s the reason many Arizona schools have been able to go solar.

That includes Madison No. 1 Middle School in Central Phoenix, which has a large solar array in the middle of its campus. Madison spokesman Jay Mann describes it as “so impressive.”

The tall canopy of panels allows only slender gaps of sunlight to hit the concrete below.

It changes the feel the courtyard completely, cooling it down and making it the kind of place students actually want to hang out. Structures like this save the district money — more than $55,000 a year. That will go up to about $75,000 after two more campuses go solar next year.

School funding has been cut dramatically in recent years. As Mann explained it, that’s something districts can’t control.

“However, things like solar power, things like putting additional energy efficiency into your schools — that’s one area where we do have control over our budget,” he said. “We can try and reduce our costs, so that way the funding that we do receive can be used more efficiently.”

So it can go for things like teacher salaries and maintenance. But there is another draw to producing energy, beyond the financial and environmental: the educational.

Back at Desert Mountain, chemistry teacher Glen Drewnowski flipped through a textbook, naming off topics from acid rain to fuel-efficient cars. They’re all part of environmental chemistry. For her, the school’s solar panels are a jumping off point for teaching about that subject as a whole.

“This is probably the favorite topic of all of my classes, and I teach it in all three preps that I’ve got,” she said, “and they feel that this is the most relevant, so they’re the most interested.”

While solar is gaining momentum in Arizona and at local schools, the Salt River Project estimates that it accounts for less than one percent of the total energy generated in the state.