Antwerp Local Schools and Warsaw Community Schools have the potential to become trendsetters, not for educational programs but for the way they power their buildings.
The Ohio and Indiana districts are among a small but growing number of districts nationwide to adopt solar energy.
Rapidly declining installation costs have driven interest among K-12 schools nationwide, with the number of solar schools up 46 percent since 2014, according to a report released late last year by the Solar Foundation, the Solar Energy Industries Association and Generation 180, a nonprofit committed to spreading energy awareness.
Along with costs plummeting 67 percent in the last decade – and 19 percent in 2016 alone, financing options also make it easier for schools to benefit from solar energy with little or no upfront costs, “Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools” found.
“We're preparing for that next (budgetary) low,” said Harold Gottke, Antwerp's technology director.
The trend, however, has yet to catch on in Indiana. Only 16 of nearly 5,500 solar schools are in the Hoosier State, making it one of 18 states with solar installed at less than 1 percent of schools, the report found.
Neighboring states don't fare much better. Only 1 percent of Ohio schools are solar, a threshold Michigan and Kentucky also haven't surpassed. Illinois, however, rounds out the top 10 states by this measure; 5.8 percent of its schools have solar power.
Although solar schools represent only 4.4 percent of schools nationwide, Ed Gilliland, a lead author on the report, said the gains within the educational sector are important.
“If schools were not growing, it'd be a real missed opportunity,” the Solar Foundation senior director said.
In Indiana, schools would benefit to adopt solar energy sooner than later. A law enacted last year gradually lowers the reimbursement for Hoosiers who install devices to use solar power.
Multiple factors make schools good solar power users, Gilliland and others said. Their physical characteristics – such as large flat roofs and open spaces – provide space for panels, and energy savings benefit taxpayers.
“In addition,” Gilliland said, “solar acts as an educational laboratory.”
That's what prompted Warsaw to install solar panels at three schools with a building project completed about a year ago, Superintendent David Hoffert said. The renewable energy powered STEM labs – science, technology, engineering and math – at those schools, he said.
Using iPads, he said, students can compare the amount of energy collected on sunny and cloudy days. Other lessons can address electricity, the electrical grid and alternative energy, he said.
“There's a lot of learning that goes into this,” Hoffert said.
Warsaw has since recognized solar power can save significant money, he said.
That has been an incentive for others. “Brighter Future” highlighted a New Mexico district that has saved about $700,000 annually since 2013; a Missouri district that expects its electricity bill will fall from $8,000 to $10,000 per month to $2,000 to $3,000 per month; and a suburban Chicago district that expects to save $10 million over its system's lifetime.
Warsaw, which is expanding its solar capacity, expects millions will be saved in energy costs over the next 20 years. The six-school project is being made possible through a partnership with 1st Source Bank, which provided a $9.3 million solar energy equipment loan.
A 30-year agreement with NIPSCO also guarantees Warsaw's ability to sell back excess energy generated by the panels to the grid.
“This is no new debt to the district,” said Brandon Penrod, Warsaw's chief financial officer.
Antwerp, meanwhile, worked with enTrust, which designs, finances and operates solar fields for nonprofits – largely schools.
The company, which shouldered the $1.6 million cost, will sell electricity to the district at a 20-year set price that is about 4 cents cheaper than current rates through the traditional utility provider, Gottke and Superintendent Martin Miller said.
Considering what Antwerp consumed last year, the 4-cent savings could add up to $60,000, though actual savings will likely be less, perhaps around $50,000, Gottke said.
The district will have the option to purchase the solar panels after several years, administrators said.
Such third-party ownership arrangements are growing in popularity because it lets third parties generate tax savings, “Brighter Future” found. It noted schools cannot directly take advantage of tax credits or accelerated depreciation for solar equipment.
“It's a win-win,” Thom Blake of enTrust said.
Working with Antwerp was a pleasure, the former teacher said, adding it “says a lot” that the community and district were willing to implement the renewable energy system.
Composed of more than 3,800 panels, the solar array was installed on a fenced-in grassy area not far from the playground and sized for the 700-student district's needs.
Like Warsaw, Antwerp upgraded its lighting to LED lighting, or light-emitting diodes, to reduce energy demand, officials said, noting those costs were reflected in the solar project's total cost.
Most days, Antwerp's solar array should meet the district's needs. On days it doesn't – and officials expect those, particularly when air conditioning is needed – the district will get power from its traditional utility company.
Solar panels began powering the district in late November and haven't been stopped by recent snow. Snow and ice melt from the heat generated, Gottke said.
Don't be surprised if Antwerp's and Warsaw's efforts prompt others in their communities to become solar power users. Tish Tablan, national organizer for Generation 180, said adoption among schools can have a ripple effect.
“It normalizes clean energy for the community,” she said.
Expanding solar power use is more about the will to make it happen than how much sunshine certain areas receive, Tablan said. Take Illinois, she said, noting the neighboring state ranks fourth nationwide in the number of solar schools – 337.
“Ask the question, 'Why can't we get there?'” she said.
State rankings by percentage of schools with solar power
1. Nevada 23.1 percent
2. California 14.5 percent
3. Hawaii 14.5 percent
4. Arizona 14.1 percent
5. New Jersey 13 percent
6. Massachusetts 10.2 percent
7. Vermont 9.7 percent
8. Utah 8.7 percent
9. Connecticut 7.8 percent
10. Illinois 5.8 percent
Indiana ranks 39th at 0.6 percent.
Source: 2017 Brighter Future report