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Solar, Made Simple

Stanford undergrads map out solar energy installations for disadvantaged schools.
Image of Aurora Solar's technology
The Stanford Solar Schools Project analyzed the costs, funding choices, and payoff for photovoltaic installations for 26 low-income schools. Photo NREL.

In California, federal and state subsidies have lowered the cost of installing photovoltaic panels more than ever. Public schools can apply for everything from zero interest loans to free technical consulting services as they pursue solar panels for their buildings. Yet these bond and financing opportunities often go unused, particularly by smaller school districts.

For low-income school districts especially, where funding and staffing are stretched thin, the planning process is simply too complex and convoluted.

That’s why the Stanford Solar Schools Project took shape. In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 39, the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, which has made $973 million in tax revenue available over the past three years for improving public schools with clean energy projects. With support from the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and the Haas Center for Public Service, four undergraduate students spent the summer devising a roadmap for how schools might access this money. They sorted through the red tape and paperwork of launching a solar energy project and organized it into a logical process that is easy to follow.

Brian Bartholomeusz, executive director of the TomKat Center, provided guidance, but the student team charted the course.

How did they choose which schools to target? What qualified as a disadvantaged school? Who needed their help the most? After weighing the best ethical approach, they decided to use free lunch programs as a proxy for need. By focusing on schools where at least 70 percent of students received a free or reduced price meal plan in the cafeteria, they were able to target 300 school districts, from small rural towns near Mount Shasta to the inner city of Los Angeles.

“Often, the financial aspect of the project is what makes it or breaks it for the school,” says Trevor House ’19, a sophomore and the youngest member of the team.

As a result, they provided each participating school with a proposal that included an action plan describing the entire process of installing solar on schools, a technical and financial feasibility model of a solar design, and the financing choices available to them—a 10-15 page document in total.

“Being a small rural low-income school, I really needed some assistance in this matter, and your team provided the necessary help,” says one school principal.          

2016 Energy Impact Fellows: (l to r) Trevor House ’19, Sneha Ayyagari ’17, Claudia Brunner ’17, and Chiamaka Ogwuegbu ’18.

By the project’s conclusion, the students had heard back from and assisted 26 school districts in taking a step closer to solar energy. They also created an online clearinghouse for stakeholders interested in working with solar in schools (see the Stanford Solar Schools Project website).

The inaugural project did have some setbacks, including lags or dead-ends in communication with school staff who were away during summer vacation. Because email responses set the productivity of the day in the students’ makeshift headquarters in Schiff Residence Hall, their workload tended to spike and lull.

The quiet spells created a chance to learn about solar energy from other sources, however. Throughout the eight-week summer fellowship, the students participated in weekly brown bag talks with solar energy experts, including hearing from not one, but two former California Energy Commissioners—nearly 20 speakers in all.

They also worked closely with the Stanford spin-out Aurora Solar, a startup specializing in 3D solar design-modeling software. Sneha Ayyagari, ’17, a senior environmental systems engineering major, notes it was nice to have the startup’s expertise nearby.

Ayyagari says she was surprised by the list of hurdles facing schools interested in solar, from securing approval from school boards and administrations, to dealing with staffing turnover, to finding and hiring the right consultants, to completing site examinations—some of which can take years to resolve and all of which must occur before a single photovoltaic panel is even purchased.

Over the summer she learned that the most successful schools are the ones with a champion for the idea, which made her wonder whether the Stanford Solar Schools Project could evolve to collaborate with high school students and teachers.

Her idea, and suggestions from the other fellows for refining the project, will inform the experience for future students in what has been, essentially, a student-led project.

“We were given clay to work with and I like the sculpture we created,” says Chiamaka Ogwuegbu, ’18, a junior Earth Systems major.

For more, see the Stanford Solar Schools Project website.

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