Schools power up with solar energy

Brighter Future.  This is a really good report on how solar energy is increasingly being used to power up schools in the US.

It’s an interesting development.  But not just for the reasons given in the report.

In terms of the economics it makes total sense:  electricity from solar is cheaper than the grid in most areas of the US and Canada.  School boards have some serious electricity bills; and they have the financial resources to pay the upfront costs—often a barrier for residential customers.  Schools take a lot of power—several hundred kilowatts, so PV companies that deal at scale are interested.

In fact, school districts don’t have to front anything if they go for a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) where a third party installs the system and is contracted to provide electricity for an agreed price per unit of electricity.

Schools have unused space.  Lots of it.  All those flat roofs sitting there empty and unused.  All that parking space that can be covered with rows of hanger-like structures: the cars underneath, the PV panels on top.

More important than the economics is that this is a learning experience for schoolchildren.  A solar powered school is a great learning experience and a lot of fun.  It’s a life-size laboratory. There’s dozens of ways that a photovoltaic array and the power conditioning equipment can be used to teach school kids about solar energy, physics, electricity, and climate change.

Schools are focal points for the community.  People pay attention to what goes on at the school.  They ask questions; they come and take a look.  The kids ask their parents : why can’t they have solar panels on their house?

But increasingly schools are more than just a place where kids learn.  It’s a place where families come when storms blast through their community and the power goes out. Fallen trees have brought down the power lines.  At home, there are no lights; cell phone’s dead, no television.

But down at the school the lights are on, the phones are charged up, and CNN is on the TV.  To make this happen, photovoltaic systems need energy storage systems. ESS. Otherwise know as batteries.  This is the missing link.  It costs money—but it changes a school from a place that works only in the day, to a community service center that can be open at all hours and in all weather. It’s a key form of disaster preparedness.  It enormously increases the resilience of the  communities close to the school. It means that the lights never totally go out. It means that no family is out of reach.

But guess who else understands that schoolkids need to learn about energy?

In Oklahoma, K-12 schools get free books about science.  About energy.  Science teachers strapped for resources are likely to use them—even if they are not convinced by the message.  The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) is just super keen for K-12 kids to understand the importance of energy.

But no, not solar.

For the OERB, the future is ….  petroleum.

The OERB has spent around $40 million over the last several years providing educational materials for science teachers. Their educational materials.  All about the wonderful world of petroleum.

And not just Oklahoma. A similar program in Ohio shows teachers how to ‘frack’ Twinkies using straws to pump for cream.  Check it out here.

These books and videos are financed by the oil companies. Their message is a lot different from those of us who believe that the world needs to rapidly change to new sources of energy. Fracking Twinkies is not on the agenda.

The message from the oil companies is that the age of oil has produced huge benefits for western civilization.  It has driven the enormous increases in wealth that the USA and Canada have witnessed over the last century.  Coal and oil are the fuels that generate electricity—which has transformed rural towns and brought light and communications to areas that struggled to make any kind of economic progress.

And all of this is true.

But there is a dark and dangerous side to this form of carbon energy.  We know now how much damage it has inflicted on rural communities.  We have learned too late how burning coal and oil to generate electricity, and fueling cars with gasoline and diesel has fouled the air, polluted groundwater, and devastated rural landscapes.  All this has been hidden from us by the massively rich and influential oil companies and coal magnates. And those same companies are working hard to stay in business–in the face of solar energy and wind driven power generation that is slowly but surely replacing coal, oil and gas.

So schools are not just centers of learning.  They can also be centers of propaganda—aimed at those who are the most impressionable—your kids.

This is why schools need to show that there is a  different way to keep the lights on.

So this is now a new concept for the traditional school that closes up in the afternoon and the janitor turns off the lights. The new school  stays open through the evening.  The power is free; the batteries are charged up and the inverters are humming along nicely.  It was a sunny day.

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