Arkansas educators don’t get nearly enough credit. If the coronavirus-induced school closures taught us anything, it’s that these hardworking individuals are real life heroes. They are our teachers, motivators, caretakers and occasionally, our stand-in therapists. We ask a lot of them, and of Arkansas’ schools, districts, colleges, universities and education-related institutions in general. Yet, they continue to deliver successful results for our students — even on increasingly limited funding.
As economic competition further intensifies in the United States and in global marketplaces, particularly in the aftermath of COVID-19, the demands on the state’s educational entities are only expected to grow. Now more than ever, our schools, districts and higher-education organizations must be good shepherds of their finite financial resources, so they can invest in the areas where they’ll reap the most lasting benefits. During these times of economic uncertainty and perpetual belt tightening, there’s one easy place for them to cut their overhead costs: their monthly electricity bills.
In order to successfully operate, educational facilities and campuses require a significant and steady flow of energy. This means they are regularly saddled with massive utility bills. The total amount may fluctuate each month, but the numbers continue to tick upward. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported steady year-over-year increases in national electricity rates. Despite the current unforeseen economic challenges, the EIA predicted in May that retail prices, or the cents per kilowatt hour, would continue to rise for the U.S. residential, commercial and industrial sectors through 2021.
So, how can Arkansas educational organizations take these see-sawing utility costs into account when making decisions about their future capital investments? Often, they can’t. Without the certainty of locked-in electricity rates, many of these entities have said they are hesitant to allocate their scarce financial resources to much-needed facility or campus improvements. As a result, schools, districts, colleges and universities across the state are now facing years if not decades of deferred maintenance or large-scale infrastructure projects.
Fortunately, solar power is here to help break the cycle.
By design, our state’s educational facilities are well positioned for solar power. Academic buildings often have flat roofs, which allow for solar panels to be mounted easily and without drilling. In addition, school campuses generally have minimal tree canopies, abundant unshaded areas or excess properties available — all of which can be used to maximize the benefits of solar design and installation projects.
With the use of this innovative, cost-effective and widely available technology, we’re now seeing educational institutions across our state achieve dramatic energy savings. The return on investment is even greater among those facilities that have opted to install bigger solar systems. According to recent renewable-energy industry studies, larger solar arrays bring in greater average returns on investment. In fact, field data now confirms as the size of a solar system increases, the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity decreases.
Thanks to Arkansas’ recent passage of the Solar Access Act, which allows for third-party purchasing, a growing number of schools, districts and higher-education entities are entering into long-term leases on solar systems as part of power purchase agreements, commonly known as PPAs. Others have decided to purchase their arrays outright as part of performance contracts. These unique financial agreements allow organizations to reap guaranteed energy and operational savings — from solar and other energy-efficiency measures — and fund repayment of capital needed for their campus infrastructure needs. When paired with net-meter aggregation, some schools and districts have been able to achieve near energy independence.
But solar power’s benefits extend beyond our educational facilities’ operating costs. In certain cases, investing in these types of renewable energy measures may help shore up colleges and universities’ financials by allowing them to recruit a greater number of sustainability or eco-friendly-minded students. And with growing interest in the advanced energy field in general, some higher-education institutions may soon decide to invest in additional solar-related degree programs or advanced professional certifications to help their students secure high-paying design or engineering jobs post-graduation.
In the span of a few short years, we’ve seen greater adoption of advanced energy solutions — by Arkansas homeowners, businesses, cities, counties and increasingly, our state’s schools and districts. No matter the industry, the results of each solar design and installation project are the same: long-term energy and financial independence.
Josh Davenport is co-founder and CEO of Seal Solar, one of Arkansas’ leading solar businesses that offers turnkey solutions to homeowners, businesses, government entities and farmers. For more information, visit sealsolar.com.