Solar and sustainability in schools

By Scott Downie, Director, Spiezle Architectural Group

Learning happens every day in schools, but school buildings themselves are not always seen as active participants in the learning process. Students carry computers in their pockets more powerful than the ones they landed on the moon with; information on any subject is accessible in an instant, and education now includes how we interact with the information we have access to, as does learning from the information itself. Sustainability is changing the way buildings are designed and built as the relationship with the built environment evolves and school buildings are designed as sustainable learning spaces that enhance the relationship between students and their natural and built environment.

Credit: Spiezle Architectural Group

Critical to making these connections between students and their built environment is not only understanding the concepts of solar energy or how to use energy efficiently, but also enabling students to understand how a facility works on a practical level. It’s one thing to understand having solar on the roof and quite another to provide access to real-time information about power generation, building energy consumption, energy sources and weather reports – while challenging students to learn ways to be smarter. go with the energy we use.

Schools designed to meet LEED and other sustainable standards are becoming more common as it can now be done without cost premiums. How much energy they use is a substantial part of any building’s carbon footprint.

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

Solar energy for schools is not a new concept, but it is becoming more common and can provide interesting connections to learning. School buildings are naturally very conducive to the use of solar energy, as they often have large footprints and provide significant surface area for roof-based systems. They are also located on campuses with parking spaces suitable for solar canopies and even ground-based systems.

Public schools, in particular, face a constant challenge to manage the limited public dollars as effectively as possible. Reducing the cost of energy consumption during operation is an important opportunity.

School solar systems are typically grid-connected systems that are physically based on schools or school grounds, but supply their energy to the grid rather than 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 solar financial structure attractive to schools, both through direct purchase/installation models and through third-party financing structures, such as power purchase agreements.

New trends focusing on infrastructure resilience and the potential use of schools as emergency facilities have led to the use of battery-backed systems that can operate independently of the power grid. New incentives have emerged targeting such “resilience” systems, as these systems typically do not qualify for grid-connected REC-based incentives.

Credit: Spiezle Architectural Group

Solar energy systems offer opportunities to deliver live data, making them active partners in the learning process. Students have access to power generation data to illustrate system output and dynamics and power generation over time. When coupled with building use, planning, and weather information, solar system data provides applicable data for students in STEM and STEAM-oriented programs.

Students can work with school leaders to explore how changes in use or scheduling can affect overall building use and energy costs, expanding the value proposition of solar even further.

Lighting and system controls have advanced to emphasize sensor-based systems and daylighting, using highly efficient and more controllable LED-based lighting. Schools using these systems are eligible for incentives related to efficient lighting equipment based on their condition.

These systems enable control and information at the luminaire 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 that, when combined with solar and other electrical systems, can show students macro and micro energy usage and sustainability information. This can help them understand how broad factors, ranging from the weather to how a classroom uses a classroom, can affect energy use.

Schools are equipped with large spaces and catering facilities, making them potential resilience candidates that can continue to function and provide shelter in the event of power outages or storms.

Solar + storage systems can be an important part of the on-site generation systems needed to meet this need. Although they are more expensive upfront than a grid-connected solar system, they can give owners access to various 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 creating facilities that can engage students and integrate experiential learning in new and broader ways than the traditional “cells-and-calls” school buildings of the past. STEM and STEAM learning can leverage the information provided by solar energy and modern building systems to create real-world engagement opportunities to connect curriculum and learning in schools to the real world.

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

Scott Downie is a director at Spiezle Architectural Group. He can be reached at

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