How an Illinois school district invests in solar energy – Northern Public Radio (WNIJ)

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Over 300 solar panels were installed this school year at Smith Elementary School in Aurora. It’s still late winter and ice is melting off the roof as the sun shines brighter than usual.

“Today, I imagine it’s generating quite well,” said Pat Dacy. He’s the capital projects manager here at the Aurora West Unit School District.

Thousands of schools across the country have installed solar panels over the past decade. Illinois has the 3rd-most solar schools of any state.

Aurora West started its solar journey back in 2020. Now, nine of the district’s 17 schools have solar arrays. They have a total capacity of 3.3 megawatts — enough to power close to 600 homes.

Angie Smith is the Assistant Superintendent for Operations. She said when they first started thinking about solar, they had a bit of a problem.

“We didn’t have fund balances, which for you and I with our house would be like our savings account,” she said. “We weren’t sitting on so much money that it was like, ‘Hey, honey, time to get a new roof, let’s just hit the savings account!’ We didn’t have balances like that.”

Solar is an investment in a few ways. But, first off, it’s a financial investment. Because they couldn’t afford a big initial capital expense, they had to pivot. It’s how they found the Illinois Solar for All Program.

It was created in 2016 when the state passed the “Future Energy Jobs Act” and was enhanced by 2021’s “Climate and Equitable Jobs Act.” It provides funding to help income-eligible homeowners, communities, non-profits & public facilities get into solar energy.

Smith says Aurora West was the first school district in the state to take advantage of Solar for All. Now, there have been 30 Solar for All projects at Illinois public schools.

Through the program, they partnered with PSG Energy Group on what’s called a Power Purchase Agreement or PPA.

“Somebody else pays to construct it, somebody else maintains it,” said Smith. “The benefit to us is that we are producing some of our own power, and then we’re locking in a much cheaper rate to buy that power versus buying it from ComEd.”

Other Illinois schools have similar solar projects. Rockford Public Schools is developing one. The Kaneland School District also has a solar PPA agreement.

There are other initiatives schools can take advantage of too. Schools can get free Carbon-Free assessments and there’s the “Illinois Shines” solar program that 19 Illinois districts have utilized. Qualifying schools can also claim clean energy tax credits and funding thanks to the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

Solar is also an investment in the future. Both in terms of their financial investment eventually paying off, but also an investment in clean energy and teaching their students how they can do their part.

All of the West Aurora schools with solar arrays have display monitors at the front of the building that shows how much energy is being produced and what that total energy equals. For example, this month, West Aurora High School’s solar panels have produced the same amount of energy as almost 3,000 pounds of methane and reduced as much CO2 emissions as planting 806 trees.

Here in northern Illinois, the panels aren’t producing enough energy for the building to be totally self-sufficient, but it’s significant.

Smith says they’re using the data in classrooms.

“We essentially have more real-life applications in our buildings,” she said. “Kids can say ‘Here’s what happens when you have a sunny day in February instead of the normal cloud cover’ and [they’re] trying to use it for science experiments.”

First and foremost, she says they have to be responsible with taxpayer dollars, but environmentally friendly solutions are an easier sell.

“People in the community who maybe don’t have kids, but are still taxpayers, this is something that they like,” said Smith. “You never know what’s going to be something that somebody can relate to, and I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people who say, ‘We appreciate the fact that you guys are thinking green.’”

The district also recently won two electric school buses from a federal lottery. Its driver’s ed cars are plug-in EVs, and they have geothermal energy systems at several schools.

A couple of years in, Smith says West Aurora is thinking about adding even more panels. And, this time, they might be in the financial place to own them outright and enjoy all of the clean energy benefits.

And with more state and federal tax credits & incentives, more and more Illinois schools like them may be “going solar” soon.

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