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Two companies want to bring solar power to schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Isaac Riddle

Two clean energy companies plan to bring solar power to Philadelphia-area schools while educating students about the benefits of renewable energy.

The Philadelphia Solar Schools Initiative, a project of partners Solar States and Clean Currents, plans to install solar panels on the rooftops of 20 schools in and around Philadelphia at no upfront cost.

Starting next year, schools would receive through PSSI a package deal of renewable energy courses for students, solar panels, and wind power. Solar States will finance, own, and operate the array of solar panels while billing the school for the energy it uses at a low rate.

The schools will remain connected to the general electrical grid. The solar panels would provide around 30 percent of the school’s energy, with the remaining 70 percent coming from PECO or other energy sources.

Two key components of the solar initiative are educating students on the benefits of solar power and providing them skills and training in installing solar panels.

“Any solar installation company can install solar panels on a school, but it would be a waste of a teachable moment if we didn’t involve the students,” said Micah Gold-Markel, founder of Solar States and the initiative’s director.

In September, PSSI began piloting the program at YouthBuild Charter School, a school for 18- to 21-year-old students who had previously dropped out of high school. Gold-Markel said that the school was a good fit because the students there are more mature and many have experience in construction.

Gold-Markel volunteers 10 hours a week at the school to teach students how solar power works and how to install and maintain the equipment.

About 30 students at the school have participated in the five-week course. For many of them, it’s the first time they have been exposed to the idea of alternative energy.

“I am letting this program show me new things, and so far I am getting pretty curious about solar energy,” said Amir Davis, a senior.

More than 500 schools in 43 states have installed solar panels, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. The average price of a solar panel has declined by 60 percent since the beginning of 2011.

The lower costs to install solar energy have made solar power increasingly appealing to financially strapped school districts. According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s laboratory on renewable energy, nearly 70 percent of the savings from solar energy have come from municipal buildings, including many K-12 schools.

For the participating students at YouthBuild Charter, the use of solar energy is a win-win.

“There are so many rooftops out there that could support solar, and to not have them go solar would just be a waste of space,” Davis said. And “there will be more jobs because there will be people needed to install the solar panels and people needed to keep up with [maintaining] them.”

PSSI has launched a fundraising campaign to help expand its reach across the city and collaborate with more city schools.

Isaac Riddle is an intern at the Notebook.

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