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Future shines bright for solar schools

School districts draw on University of Minnesota Extension’s clean energy expertise

Student and science teacher looking at lightbulbs.
Iman Deriche, senior at Irondale High School, studies solar energy concepts with Andrea Abeln, environmental science teacher and clean energy advocate.

Iman Deriche has a vision for a brighter future — one that includes plenty of solar panels like the ones that sparkle atop the school building where she is wrapping up her senior year. 

A soon-to-be-graduate of Irondale High School in the Mounds View Public School District, Deriche became interested in renewable energy several years ago after hearing about natural disasters and watching erratic weather kill trees in her own back yard. 

“I realized how much climate change has affected everyone around me,” she says. With others from her school’s environmental club, she successfully lobbied her school board to commit to switching completely to clean energy by 2030. 

Public investment pays many dividends 

Mounds View is one of 60 school districts across Minnesota that are saving money and enhancing their curriculum with solar panels they’ve installed on or near school buildings. That number is expected to increase in the year ahead, thanks to Solar for Schools, a $16 million grant program for school solar energy projects set into place by the 2021 Minnesota Legislature. With dropping prices, innovative financing and a growing commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the program creates a “magic moment” for solar school projects in Minnesota. 

4 men in front of solar panels on a roof of a school bulding
Mike Cartwright, second from left, initiated solar for Mounds View Public Schools after taking a U of M class. Pictured right: Peter Lindstrom and Joel Haskard, Pictured left: Cordon Laroche

Extension staff play a key role. The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), a partnership that includes Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, will serve as technical advisers to participating districts, helping them assess their readiness and connect to needed resources. 

The role is a natural for Extension, which has a longstanding commitment to renewable energy, community development and strengthening rural economies.

“Many opportunities are embedded in renewable energy, such as community development and job creation,” says CERTs co-director Joel Haskard, an Extension energy program leader. “CERTs works to ensure that all communities benefit from clean energy, particularly underserved communities. Youth are an essential part of that in rural, suburban and urban areas.” 

No out-of-pocket costs 

The potential to save money is a big motivator for districts eyeing the opportunity. Roseville Area Schools, for example, added a solar array to its Aŋpétu Téča Education Center in 2021 without a need for up-front investment. 

“The company puts the equipment up and installs it, and then we pay back to them through savings,” says school board member Curtis Johnson, who introduced the opportunity for such an arrangement to the district after hearing about it at a Minnesota School Board Association meeting. 

The Mounds View district, which has installed solar panels on 13 buildings, anticipates saving $1 million to $2 million over 25 years. That money can then be reallocated to meet classroom needs. 

“I thought it was a no-brainer because there was no out-of-pocket cost to the school,” says Mounds View High School physics teacher Mike Cartwright, who proposed the district install solar panels after learning about the possibilities at a class he took at the University of Minnesota in 2014. 

Bringing solar to science class 

While the savings free up more money for education, the installations provide STEM learning opportunities for students. Cartwright says Mounds View is incorporating the solar installations and systems, which log data on electricity production, into classroom education. 

“Today’s youth will be making tomorrow’s energy choices, whether around energy technology, markets or policies, or working in the energy sector,” says Peter Lindstrom, CERTs manager of public sector and community engagement. “For schools to have a solar array that students can see and learn from is critically important. Schools know that better than anybody.” 

Deriche is proof that young people will fight for a clean energy future. “It’s scary because you feel like, as a student, your voice is not heard, or you feel like they won’t take you as seriously because you’re younger,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I realized that’s what I needed to do. I needed to speak up.” 

For more information

Simple sun illustration with concentric circles.

Baked In

Solar energy is part of Extension’s founding document, the 1914 Smith-Lever Act:

“In order to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture, uses of solar energy with respect to agriculture, home economics, and rural energy…”

Interested in championing solar power in your school district? Here are some tips from Peter Lindstrom:

  • Focus on energy efficiency first. 
  • Pull together a core team. 
  • Engage key stakeholders. 
  • Build your solar knowledge. 
  • Choose a suitable site. 
  • Issue a request for proposals to obtain competitive bids. 
  • Tell your story and celebrate your success. 
  • Incorporate the array into classroom learning and empower students.
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