California Schools Fight Fire With the Sun
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not only is solar energy clean, but it also reduces the threat of fire.
By Stephen Starr
When it comes to schools and solar power, the Santa Rita Union School District tops the class. Last year, the Salinas-based district of 3,600 students became the first nationwide with the capacity to become entirely energy self-sufficient, with a microgrid — a combination of solar panels and battery storage units — at each school site.
Yet the district is an exemplar of a larger pattern that’s redefining how American schools respond to climate change. From Nevada to New York City, Arizona to Hawaii, a growing number of school districts are investing in solar microgrids. But it’s California that’s driving this move, at a time the state finds itself repeatedly singed by wildfires.
Nationally, 5,489 schools now have solar photovoltaic (panel) installations, generating a cumulative 1.9 million megawatt-hours of electricity annually — enough to power 190,000 homes. They have a combined solar capacity that’s twice what American schools had in 2014. Of these schools, more than a third — 1,946 — are in California, and they produce more than half the total solar power generated by American schools, according to the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit.
California is striving for 100 percent renewable energy use by 2045, and the Golden State’s progressive and innovative cultures are contributing. Initiatives such as the Bright Schools Program — which helps schools identify cost-effective energy solutions — and Solar Power Purchase Agreements (SPPA) — when developers install and operate solar systems whose electricity is then bought by the school — are helping to spread solar use. The Santa Rita Union School District uses an SPPA. There’s an economic incentive, since California has 60 percent higher electricity demand charges than the national average.
What it’ll do is afford a school district to continue to function if PG&E goes down.
Santa Rita Union School District superintendent Tim Ryan
But it’s the recent wildfires that have cast the sharpest focus on solar power as a possible energy solution for California’s schools. Utility provider Pacific Gas & Electric Company cut electricity to more than 2 million people in October to reduce the chance of its equipment malfunctioning and leading to blazes. On Oct. 30 — at the peak of the crisis — 666 California schools were without power. Schools in Santa Rita Union School District stayed open.
“What it’ll do is afford a school district to continue to function if PG&E goes down. And we’re going to see more of these wildfires where they just shut the power off,” says Santa Rita Union School District superintendent Tim Ryan. “When that happens, we’ll be able to continue to serve our kids.”
Some districts are even going beyond meeting their own on-site needs. California’s Hayward Unified School District plans to roll out electric vehicle charging facilities for staff, students and parents as part of a broader solar project expected to save it $65 million in energy costs. In its first year, the project is expected to generate more than 8 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy, says district superintendent Matt Wayne. That’ll cut emissions by “roughly the same as the carbon that would be sequestered by over 95,000 tree seedlings growing for 10 years,” he says.
The perils of depending on the regular grid extend beyond planned outages. The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County that burned more than 77,000 acres is believed to have been caused by a sparking transmission line (the Camp Fire that killed more than 80 people in 2018 was triggered by a faulty line).
“The California fires have driven home the need for reliable power in the event of a major interruption to the grid,” says Avery Palmer, communications manager at the Solar Foundation. As well as saving school districts billions of dollars and using clean energy, the right kind of solar infrastructure could eventually reduce the dependence on fire-causing transmission lines.
When a wildfire broke out on Oct. 22, injuring a firefighter, the Santa Rita Elementary School found itself just miles from the flames. “The fire was eight to 10 miles from us heading away from the town, but you never know,” says superintendent Ryan.
This growing threat is driving a dramatic increase in interest, say companies specializing in microgrid infrastructure. “It’s been crazy,” says Ted Flanigan, president of EcoMotion, a solar consultancy firm that worked on the Santa Rita project. “Everybody is looking at [battery storage] now. People want resilience.”
For the moment, there are challenges that limit what these schools can do. Most solar panel systems used by American schools are connected to a local utility grid but are not paired with storage batteries and power inverters. That means that while they can use clean energy when the grid is on, during a power cut the energy produced by solar panels isn’t retrievable, even if it’s sunny.
Some California schools equipped with solar panels had to go without electricity when PG&E cut power due to the wildfire threat in October. “Solar did not play a part in keeping our schools open,” says Denise Jennison of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Contra Costa County.
The lithium-ion batteries used in many microgrid systems have been known to cause fires, including at a utility-owned facility in Arizona in April 2019 that injured four firefighters, and prompted new safety laws.
Still, Flanigan estimates that such incidents make up “well below 1 percent” of overall lithium-ion battery use. And more schools are looking at adding storage to their existing solar systems — which would let them stay open when the grid shuts down. Schools in the Santa Rita Union School District can store up to seven hours of backup electricity — though they too are connected to the main utility grid.
Solar storage in California can cost between $300,000 and $500,000 for an elementary school and up to $1 million for a high school. But a state incentive program covers up to a third of that, says Brad Heavner, policy director of the California Solar & Storage Association. “In fire zones, the state incentive can pay the full cost if the school is used as an emergency shelter.”
It’s an investment that’ll keep giving. Wildfire and blackout threats are expected to increase over the coming decade. These schools will be prepared.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr