How Big Tech Can Deploy Solar on Schools for Community Benefit – TriplePundit

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Big U.S. tech companies have become adept at using power purchase agreements (PPAs) to acquire renewable energy. The PPA model can also benefit school districts and other non-commercial institutions, but some states prohibit it. A recent policy shift in West Virginia illustrates how tech firms can help school districts take advantage of new PPA opportunities.

PPAs: The state of play

PPAs came into wide use as a de-risking tool for renewable energy developers following the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005. These agreements are essentially long-term contracts between an energy producer and an energy buyer, usually a utility or another corporate customer. The buyer commits to purchase energy from the contracted project — think: a new wind farm or solar installation — for a certain amount of time, providing the producer with guaranteed payback and the ability to take advantage of renewable energy tax credits. As motivation on the consumer side, wind and solar PPA rates are typically lower than local utility rates, and they are buffered from volatility in global energy markets.

Intuit and other leading tech firms — including Amazon, Salesforce and Google — were among the first corporations to recognize the role of these agreements in accelerating their climate goals. In 2020, for example, Intuit announced that a single PPA in Texas enabled the company to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity 10 years earlier than anticipated. 

PPAs continue to be a leading factor in the tech sector’s transition to renewables in the U.S. and elsewhere. “Big tech remains a large contributor of PPA growth,” researchers noted in BloombergNEF’s 2024 Corporate Energy Market Outlook

Breaking down PPA barriers

PPAs are also accessible to schools and other non-commercial entities in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Until 2021, that group did not include West Virginia. PPAs were prohibited in the state until 2021 when the West Virginia state legislature passed a bill to allow them.

A series of electricity rate hikes contributed to the pressure for change in West Virginia, a high-poverty state in the heart of Appalachia where the once-dominant coal industry has been losing jobs for generations. The bill became law shortly after passage in April 2021, though Gov. Jim Justice declined to sign it.

Intuit spots an opportunity

For Intuit, the shift in West Virginia policy provided a new opportunity to link school-based PPAs with additional community benefits, consistent with the company’s ongoing Climate Positive initiative that aims to reduce 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions outside of the company’s operations.

The company launched the Coalfield Solar Fund last year to encourage schools in underserved communities in West Virginia and Virginia to adopt PPAs, along with educational and job training programs focused on the solar industry. The fund is a partnership between Intuit, the nonprofit National Energy Education Development Project, and the Virginia-based solar developer and certified B Corp Secure Solar Futures.

“These communities have been an economic engine for the country for a century, and they have been impacted in an incredibly difficult and challenging way,” said Debbie Lizt, Intuit’s head of global sustainability.

Coalfield Solar provides science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and job training grants of $50,000 to $150,000 for public schools and community colleges that enter into on-site solar PPA agreements with Secure Solar Futures.

An Intuit Prosperity Hub education and job training center in neighboring Virginia served as a model for the Coalfield Solar Fund. “Solar in particular was starting in Virginia. PPA’s were more accessible, and we had already formed a partnership with Secure Solar Futures in southwest Virginia for rooftop solar on schools,” Lizt explained. “The aim is not to just install solar, but also to provide access [for] future generations to be exposed to the potential jobs of the future and an opportunity for apprenticeships for the students.”

The ripple effect of PPAs

Calhoun County Schools in West Virginia is one of three school districts to win funding in Coalfield Solar’s initial round of awards. The grant will build on existing initiatives in Calhoun County, which has already made history as the first school district in West Virginia to enter into a PPA for solar arrays on school property.

The PPA was signed with Secure Solar Futures in the fall of 2022, enabling the installation of rooftop solar arrays on an elementary school and a middle school in the sparsely populated district of approximately 860 students.

“We hope that being the first public school system to install the solar panels on our roofs will encourage other school systems to follow suit,” Kelli Whytsell, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools, said in a statement. 

That hope was soon in evidence. In November 2023, the West Virginia developer Solar Holler announced plans to install up to 5.3 megawatts worth of solar panels on multiple buildings under a PPA with the Wayne County Schools district, which is projected to save almost $6.5 million in energy costs over 25 years.

“The agreement represents the largest power purchase agreement signed in West Virginia to date and the largest single demonstration of solar on public schools anywhere in Appalachia,” according to a statement from Solar Holler.

Expanding the benefits of solar PPAs

The shift in West Virginia state policy is not the only factor motivating the PPA trend there. “In addition to the state legislation that made PPAs possible, the Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022 has been instrumental in making these types of projects economically viable,” according to Solar Holler. That’s due to changes to the tax code and other incentives for projects in coal communities.

Intuit has already seen an enthusiastic response to the Coalfield Solar program.

“We would not be able to accelerate the solar transition without the change in solar policies,” Lizt said, though she emphasized that the demand is driven organically as an extension of the role of local schools as economic engines and community builders. The Coalfield Solar program has seen an “incredible response from schools,” Lizt said.

The powerful community solar trend may be the next opportunity to overcome the resistance of West Virginia policymakers. Community solar projects provide access to local solar for all ratepayers, including renters and other households unable to install their own rooftop panels.

Legislation that would enable community solar in West Virginia failed to pass the legislature in the past, but supporters are trying again this year.

If it succeeds this year, there will be more opportunities for corporate sustainability managers to help provide communities with resources that promote economic growth and stability in an era marked by change and upheaval. 

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