For decades, there's been a lot of buzz going around regarding the lack of funding in schools across the U.S. All too often, especially in today's volatile economic environment, education budgets are viewed as more of a burden to the overall government budget rather than an important investment in tomorrow's leaders. As a result, programs in early childhood education continue to be cut more and more due to a lack of funding.
We've all seen the commercials for programs like VH1's Save the Music Foundation, featuring stars like Alicia Keys, Beyonce and LeAnn Rimes preaching about the importance of instrumental music education in public schools. Many artists have gone on to say that their success today would be absent without those creative outlets and educational opportunities available to them at a young age. In addition to its intrinsic value, research consistently demonstrates that students who study an instrument enhance their critical thinking skills and their ability to work together as a team; they're less likely to drop out; and they perform significantly better in other academics.
Those programs are making some incredible headway to restore music/arts education in schools across the country from the donations of many Americans. Some school districts, however, are getting more creative. California's Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District, for example, has restored music instruction with savings from solar power installations at three of its five district schools.
The newly installed systems, provided by SolarCity, will allow the district to pay less for clean solar power than it would for fossil fuel utility power, saving the District $900,000 in the systems' first five years of operation, and several million over the life of the system.
“Solar energy projects for public schools are essentially revenue enhancements for school districts which directly benefit the students and taxpayers,” said Russell Freitas, Superintendent of Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District. “During these past ten years, school districts have experienced the most difficult financial times and because of the savings this solar project has created, we are able to bring music instruction back to the District.”
Since 2009, the District had been forced to eliminate music instruction for grades six through twelve due to a lack of funding, but has now brought back a variety of musical offerings for fourth through twelfth graders in the 2012-2013 school year.
After applying for and receiving authorization to issue a Qualified School Construction Bond, which covered the cost of construction of the system, the District worked with an independent energy advisor, TerraVerde Renewable Partners, to determine a funding source and select the best solar provider. The annual expected savings are in excess of the annual debt service payments, resulting in a positive cash flow starting from year one. Freitas explains that being prepared to act quickly when low cost financing options come up is key to the success of these types of projects.
What's more is that the solar systems also provide students with firsthand demonstrations, explaining how solar energy works and all of its benefits. Through SolarCity’s web-based monitoring, PowerGuide®, they’ll be able to track in real-time how much power their solar system is generating and how much electricity their school is using. This data is displayed graphically, thus allowing students to easily see the relationship between production and consumption.
“Besides the economic benefits, the presence of solar serves as both an inspiration and teaching tool to faculty and students in learning about math and science,” says Freitas. “For example, data systems associated with the solar project generate real world information on electricity usage, weather, and costs savings that can be used to teach about the interaction of different math and engineering concepts.”
No more students whining in math class about how they'll “never use this in the real world.” This new approach may even inspire a number of students to continue education in fields critical to the future of their generation: energy efficiency.
Of course, no school district is the same. Every District has its own unique challenges in figuring out how to reduce operating costs so that as many resources as possible are available for the classroom, explains Freitas.
“In some Districts the need is music/art, in others the highest need is to fund deferred maintenance so that children are able to learn in a healthy and safe environment,” he says. “The key point is that schools have the opportunity to generate savings through effective management of energy, including implementation of solar.”
Due to the lack of state funding, many school districts have had to ask their local voters for operating referendums just to provide their students with a basic education. Factoring in inflation, state aid to school districts has dropped by about 13 percent over the last decade.
The Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District stands as an example of how one school system took the debilitating challenge into their own hands. For them, solar power is the light at the end of a very desolate tunnel. SolarCity has undertaken over 200 other solar projects for schools, community colleges and universities across the country—a trend we can only expect to gain momentum over upcoming years as solar technology and financing options continue to improve.