Guest Column: Solar and sustainability in schools

By Scott Downie, Principal, Spiezle Architectural Group

Learning happens in schools every day, but school buildings themselves are not always considered active participants in the learning process. Students carry computers in their pockets more powerful than the ones used to land on the moon; information on any topic is accessible in an instant and education now encompasses how we engage with the information we can access as much as learning the information itself. Sustainability is changing how buildings are designed and constructed as the relationship with built environments evolves and school buildings are being designed to be sustainable places of learning that strengthen the relationship between the students and their natural and built environments.

Credit: Spiezle Architectural Group

Critical to making these connections between learners and their built environment is not just understanding the concepts of solar energy or how to use energy efficiently, but in empowering learners to understand how a facility operates at a hands-on level. It’s one thing to understand that you have solar on the roof and entirely another to provide access to real-time information on power generation, building energy use, energy sources and weather reports — all the while challenging students to learn ways to be smarter about the energy we use.

Schools designed to meet LEED and other sustainable standards are becoming more common as this can now occur without cost premiums. How much energy they use is a substantial component of each building’s environmental footprint.

Sustainable school buildings lend themselves to deeper and more active curriculum connections by making the building’s engagement with natural cycles, energy use and sustainable materials “visible.” Integrating efforts to reduce energy use through efficient lighting or solar power, manage waste differently or incorporate local materials can be visible to the students. Systems that connect students and teachers to the energy process create powerful learning reinforcement

Solar power for schools is not a new concept but is increasingly common and can provide interesting connections to learning. School buildings by nature are highly conducive to the use of solar as they tend to have large footprints providing a substantial area for roof-based systems. They also reside within campuses with parking lots suitable for solar canopies and even ground-based systems.

Public schools, in particular, face a constant challenge to manage limited public dollars as effectively as possible. Reducing the costs of energy used in operation is a significant opportunity.

School solar systems have typically been grid-connected systems that are physically based on schools or school grounds but feed their energy into the grid vs. directly supporting building demand. This typically gives them access to renewable energy credits (RECs) and similar incentives from the federal to the local level. These incentives are often critical components that make the financial structure of solar appealing for schools under both direct purchase/install models or through third-party financing structures such as power purchase agreements.

New trends focused on infrastructure resiliency and the potential use of schools as emergency facilities have led to the use of battery-supported systems that can operate independently of the grid. New incentives have begun to emerge targeting such “resiliency” systems since these systems typically do not qualify for grid-connected, REC-based incentives.

Credit: Spiezle Architectural Group

Solar power systems offer opportunities to provide live data, making them active partners in the learning process. Students can access power generation data to illustrate system output and dynamics and power generation over time. When connected to building usage, scheduling and weather information, data from solar systems provide applicable data for students in STEM and STEAM-oriented programs.

Students can engage with school leadership to explore how use or schedule changes could impact overall building usage and energy costs, expanding the solar value proposition even further.

Lighting and system controls have advanced to emphasize sensor-based systems as well as daylight harvesting, using highly efficient and more controllable LED-based lighting. Schools using these systems are eligible for incentives related to efficient lighting equipment based on what state they’re in.

These systems enable control and information at the fixture level — not just the panel level — and are programmable and controllable by users at the room or desk level. They can illustrate output usage and activity data which, when coupled with solar and other electrical systems, can show students macro and micro energy use and sustainability information. This can help them understand how broad factors ranging from weather to how a class uses a classroom can impact energy use.

Schools are equipped with large spaces and food service facilities, making them potential resiliency candidates that can continue to function and provide shelter in the case of electrical supply interruptions or storm events.

Solar + storage systems can be a key component of the on-site generating systems necessary to serve this need. While more costly upfront than a grid-connected solar system, they can give owners access to different incentives to offset these costs and can be implemented in partnership with communities that would use a facility in an emergency.

Making schools practical learning centers depends on the creation of facilities that can engage students and integrate experiential learning in new and broader ways than the traditional “cells-and-bells” school buildings of the past. STEM and STEAM learning can tap into the information that solar and modern building systems provide to create real-world engagement opportunities to connect curriculum and learning in schools with the real world.

Students can apply these opportunities by exploring ways that help make buildings even more sustainable and efficient in the future. Everybody wins when buildings become more than just places where learning occurs but also partners in the process of sustainability.

Scott Downie is a Principal at Spiezle Architectural Group. He may be reached at

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