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Making solar schools possible

Could solar energy one day power the education of all of Minnesota’s 845,000 students?

A growing number of school districts in Greater Minnesota are exploring opportunities to invest in solar to save money on their energy bills, demonstrate leadership in sustainability and provide educational opportunities to their students.

Given the complexities of navigating the development of solar projects, however, school districts may find they need additional support to get started. That’s where the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), a unique partnership among the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (Extension RSDP), Southwest Regional Development Commission (SRDC), Great Plains Institute and Minnesota Department of Commerce, can help.

Since 2003, CERTs has been connecting individuals and communities across Minnesota to the resources needed to identify and implement community-based clean energy projects. Over the past year, CERTs has formalized a new initiative called Solar Schools to provide additional support to school districts interested in solar.

Peter Lindstrom sitting at a table with two other women as presenting panelists.
Peter Lindstrom (center), CERTs Manager of Public Sector & Community Engagement, UMN Extension RSDP, on a panel prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In our Solar Schools effort, we provide school officials with free and unbiased information and technical assistance about solar investments from project proposals, design and financing through installation, and we help tell stories once projects are complete,” said Peter Lindstrom, CERTs Manager of Public Sector & Community Engagement at Extension RSDP who leads the Solar Schools program. “We’re also making connections across schools about how they can integrate solar into their STEM curriculum or empower students to pursue careers in clean energy.”

Meeting schools wherever they are

Take Pipestone Area Schools, a district located in southwestern Minnesota, for example. An early adopter of renewable energy, the district had installed a wind turbine on its property in 2003. But as the turbine reached the end of its useful life, Pipestone Area Schools  Superintendent Kevin Enerson and other key decision makers began exploring other options this year.

Enerson reached out to Jason Walker, Southwest CERT Coordinator and Development Planner at the SRDC, to discuss the possibility of a solar project that could continue to meet the school’s energy needs with renewable resources.

“We had an opportunity to streamline the process for Pipestone Schools,” said Walker. “Once Enerson contacted me about exploring solar, I was able to put him in touch with Peter Lindstrom right away. We had a presentation arranged within a week of getting that phone call. We had other CERTs staff help us crunch the numbers, we talked through options together, and the school expressed an interest in moving forward.”

“We’re going to work on a request for proposals for some third-party [solar] vendors to see if there’s interest … and then see how that all plays out,” Enerson told the Pipestone County Star, about the latest step in the ongoing process. CERTs staff and partners have been helping connect the dots in that proposal process and will stay in touch with Enerson as the school’s project plans unfold.

“As the Southwest CERT Coordinator, I see myself as the connector between the region and the resources that exist at the state level,” said Walker.

By having both a regional and statewide presence, CERTs understands the diversity of communities and school districts in Minnesota. More than 60 of the state’s 336 school districts have invested in on-site or community solar, but it is no surprise that these solar projects come in all shapes and sizes.

Some districts like Pine River-Backus Schools have found ways to invest in large-scale, on-site solar to generate the majority of their electricity. Others have started with smaller demonstration projects, such as a solar array added to ROCORI High School and Middle School’s outdoor classroom in Cold Spring and solar at Morris Area High School, with support from CERTs Seed Grants.

“We are meeting school districts wherever they are,” said Lindstrom, from small to large projects, and everywhere in between.

Looking forward to a bright future

Keeping in mind the incredible amount of change and uncertainty schools have navigated during the COVID-19 pandemic, CERTs staff hope their efforts can help schools throughout Minnesota build a brighter future over time.

For schools, students are always front and center. The same is true when it comes to solar. Whether motivated by the energy cost savings solar provides, its public health benefits, or a desire to build greater resilience, schools and ultimately their students can benefit in the long run by making sound investments in solar energy.

“We understand how overwhelmed school officials and educators must be in these times. We’ll be here whenever schools across the state are ready to start exploring their first step and their options when it comes to investing in solar,” said Lissa Pawlisch, CERTs Statewide Director at Extension RSDP, reiterating sentiments offered in a letter of support shared with colleagues and partners earlier this year.

Students and teachers standing in front of a ground mounted solar panel.
Students and teachers in front of ROCORI High School and Middle School’s outdoor classroom solar array in 2018.

In addition to Solar Schools assistance statewide, CERT regional coordinators and Steering Committees are available to provide local school districts with support and insights into clean energy topics. CERTs Seed Grants and an annual Solar Video Contest — which had a Solar Schools theme and was judged remotely this fall — have provided other ways for students, teachers and school officials in Greater Minnesota to plug in and explore solar energy.

“Schools are turning to CERTs because we’re an unbiased third-party,” said Lindstrom. “We’re not trying to make a sale, or tell them what they want to hear. We try to tell it to them straight and provide assistance where we can to make a sound decision. We’re not afraid to chat about the big picture or dig into the weeds when it comes to solar projects and their potential to help meet strategic goals that schools have across Minnesota.”

Those interested in more information about CERTs Solar Schools Initiative can contact Peter Lindstrom.

Learn more about CERTs Solar Schools Initiative

The Clean Energy Resource Teams are providing assistance to schools across Greater Minnesota interested in making investments in solar energy.

Explore the Solar Schools Initiative

Marie Donahue, October 2020

Marie Donahue works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

Banner photo credit: CERTs

Permission is granted to news media to republish our news articles with credit to University of Minnesota Extension. Images also may be republished; please check for specific photographer credits or limited use restrictions in the photo title.

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