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Thinking past stovepipes: Solar Electricity on Roof and Classroom

September 3rd, 2013 · 3 Comments

Solar panels cover my rooftop and generate about 80% of my household’s electricity use.  My house, of course, has numerous other “energy cool” elements (solar light tubes, high-efficiency fireplace insert, insulated whole-house fan, efficient appliances, etc …) but those solar panels generate 99% of the initial questioning about the house and my home’s energy issues.  While frustrating, in a way, since solar pv is far less cost (and environmentally) effective than energy efficiency investments, there is a (legitimate) positive spin on this: the solar panels serve as a gateway to opening conversations about home energy use and enables education.

So too is the case for solar panels on and around educational facilities. If we care solely about EROEI (energy return on energy invested), there are many (MANY) things to do before putting up on solar panels. If, however, we care broadly about EROI (Educational Return On Investment), then the solar panels begin to make sense as part of an educational energy investment.

In the typical school system, the instructional and infrastructure staffs are barely on speaking terms short of communication about ‘the water fountain is broken and needs fixing’.  These staffs interact but it is a very functional interaction — the infrastructure (facilities) staff is a service with the responsibility of making sure the building is working and hear (loudly and quickly) when there is a problem.

This gap misses a major opportunity space to improve the educational process and solar panels are a poster child of that opportunity.

There are drives for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.  When working on STEM programs, educators look for “systems” to study.  (FAR TOO) Rarely due these educators think about the very building they reside (work) in as what it is: a rather complex system-of-systems, with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, electricity, with a variety of building materials, that has complex interactions of impacts from the sound and air quality, temperature, lighting, pollution loads, and otherwise.  When elementary school science teachers ask me for good ideas for field trips, my typical response: “Have you visited your own school?”

Solar panels provide a gateway opportunity for building and energy system integration into the classroom. And, that ‘gateway opportunity’ is what makes this a truly viable opportunity — not on ROI nor necessarily EROEI terms, but on EROI.

When it comes to financial return on investment (ROI), in many communities around the world, putting up solar panels has a direct financial return (putting aside tax benefits and otherwise) counted in a few decades. Solar power, without some external financial support, is fast gaining ground but it simply isn’t the winner in a straight financial shoot-out in much of the developed world’s electricity markets at this time. Yes, solar beats oil-based fuel and is tremendous for addressing peak urban air conditioning demand, but (without pollution charges) it doesn’t (yet) price out natural gas or hydropower or, sigh, coal.

And, as discussed above, when it comes to EROEI, much better to invest in insulation, energy control systems, more efficient HVAC systems, skylights, and a rash of other energy efficiency which will have a greater bang for the buck on EROEI.

However, when it comes to EROI, solar electricity might be the most stellar opportunity in the educational energy marketspace.

  • Visibility
    • Solar panels are highly visible.  Students, teachers, parents, the community will be aware of them.
    • The school lobby could have a visual display — constantly updated — as to electricity production (current, cumulative over various periods (day, month, year, lifetime) and this would also be available via the web.
    • The solar panels will spark discussion about energy issues … as it does with my home.
  • Ease of integration into the educational curriculum
    • The reporting systems make the data easily available to teachers and students for use in the educational system.
    • A solar electricity system is incredibly easy to integrate into the educational environment. For example …
      • Kindergarteners could learn seasons and whether there is more solar electricity / more sun in winter or summer.
      • Elementary school students could use it for learning arithmatic, how to do distribution plots, and other development of basic math scales.
      • Middle Schoolers could calculate the distribution curves of solar electricity generation across time of day and across seasons, with analysis about variability and predictability. This could include, for example, taking multiple weather reporting services predictions and analyzing which correlated best with predicting actual electricity output.
      • Advanced High School students could analyze life-cycle costs per solar kilowatt hour — in dollar, energy, and environmental impact terms — and do comparative analysis for other electricity generation and energy efficiency options.
  • Electricity production
    • Oh, by the way, remember that those solar panels are generating electricity — which has a value even if that value is a fraction of the educational value for the school system.

In my area, each watt of solar costs roughly $4 to put on a roof (down from $6 way back in 2010 … e.g., the price is rapidly falling).  A $50,000 investment would, therefore, put a roughly 12.5 kilowatt solar pv system on the roof.  That system would produce in the range of 16 megawatts per year of electricity.  As the school system pays a discounted electricity price of about $80 per megawatt, that would mean $1280 of electricity value per year or just under 40 years of straight payoff for putting solar on the roof (assuming away any tax or other benefits from the equation).  Hmmm, this doesn’t sound good in ROI or EROI terms.

However, as yourself: How much does a school system pay for textbooks?  How much should the school system assess the educational value of those rooftop panels, which will be there 25 years or longer?  A 1000 student elementary school might have over 4000 students over that time period.  Will the average student — through addition classes and otherwise — gain $50 of value through those panels?   If that number is anything close to reasonable, the EROI (educational return on investment) is something like 4 to 1 the system’s costs, even without considering the value of the electricity generation.


Joe Plummer, CEO, Three Birds, The Educational and Inspirational Value of Renewable Energy. “The project showed me that the value of solar technology was not always financial or even environmental. The educational and inspirational value far outweighed anything else.”

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph Plummer // Sep 3, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Love the discussion on Educational Return on Investment. Also, the points on Visibility could also be part of a conversation about school and community identity.

  • 2 Johnny Gee // Sep 7, 2013 at 3:07 am

    Well, the Australian results are coming in and it appears that, as predicted, Labor is going to get trounced. The carbon tax was not the only issue, but a big one that Abbott has promised to repeal ASAP.

    It is amazing that you give not a moment’s attention, it seems, to the undue influence of News Corps on Australia’s political dynamic(s).

    Your head-in-the-sand views on energy – devoid of any political or economic bases other than those you chose to create – are not unlike those of the Australian Greens – to whom the Labor Party was in hock to for the past 3 years.

    And a great Der Spiegel article on how electricity prices have gone through the roof with half-baked green energy ideas that were promised to be cost-free.

    Do you realize that you are sharing/promoting material that is, at best, a partial look at the real situation?

    And you are surprised when working poor voters react by abandoning left parties and voting right-wing populist?

    I hold people like you responsible for this dangerous turn of events.


    The Koch Brothers don’t matter.

    The RWSM and decades of efforts on their part don’t matter.

    It is, according to you, environmentalists who are at fault for Boehner, Australian right-wing lurch, etc … Truly, I think that many environmental organizations would like to think that they are that important but they would be delusional to think so.

    PS: Please show me where I have been a massive promoter of Cap & Trade as ‘the’ solution?

    You have abandoned any materialist political framing – despite the fact that millions of people in North America and Europe are economically on the edge.

    It is rather amazing that you come to this site, to me, to attack like this.

    The amount of ink spilled here re win-win strategies, as to how to phrase/discuss/understand ‘no regrets strategies’, policy concepts and suggestions that would save money, create jobs, improve productivity, while reducing pollution loads.

    What are the benefit streams discussed re ‘greening schools’ or of greening office buildings? Is climate change top of that list?

    Laying out a path for JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! isn’t materialist enough for you?

    Not to mention the rest of the world.

    I now view core Green initiatives – absent a materialist framing – as fundamentally elitist and reactionary.

    PS – You can share the Der Spiegel article with Jerome.

  • 3 Johnny Gee // Sep 9, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Naomi Klein

    Rather interesting that you are going to Klein who, quite explicitly, doesn’t seem to believe in any ability to promote growth / materialism while addressing climate change.

    is working on her next book which is highly critical of the environmental movement for many of the reasons I have put forward for some time now.

    An analogy from another arena …

    Gerhard Weinberg is a holocaust survivor and perhaps the preeminent (American?) historian on World War II.

    Some 20 years ago, at the US Holocaust Museum, he spoke about those who speak strongly about America’s complicity in the holocaust and inadequacies of responding …

    He compared this to the neighbor who reacts a little bit slowly to a fire in the house next door and makes some mistakes — like grabbing a hose first before calling the fire house.

    And, then he highlighted that American actions were responsible for massive numbers of saved Jewish lives that often are overlooked — if there had been an invasion into France in 1943 rather than North Africa in 1942 (as Churchill wanted), the 100,000s of French North African Jews would likely have gone to the concentration camps.

    The only meaningful way to save the survivors of Hitler’s murder machine was to win the war as quickly as possible. Professor Weinberg answers the cynics who question America’s policy by suggesting to them that they consider how many more Jews would have survived had the war ended even a week or ten days earlier–and conversely, how many more would have died had the war lasted an additional week or ten days. Given the determination of the Germans to fight on to the bitter end, and knowing what Roosevelt understood then and that all of us should know now–that Hitler would never let the Jews go, that until his dying day his obsession was their destruction, that the slaughter of the Jews went on into the final moments of the Third Reich, that every day until the final surrender there were thousands of deaths by murder, starvation and disease, we should know with certainty that the number saved by winning the war as quickly as possible would be vastly greater than the total number of Jews who could be saved by any rescue efforts proposed by anyone from 1941-45.

    And …

    Weinberg did not assert that we shouldn’t understand, document, learn from inadequacies, errors, bad policy, etc but that — quite literally — “we shouldn’t forget who the murderers were …”

    We are in a similarly life-threatening environment and the analogies between the gas in the chambers and the gas in the atmosphere is obviously not perfect, but I do think important that we be quite clear about who is outright evil / working fervently to prevent any improvement in the situation and who is making errors …

    If Fred Krupp and his approaches to climate change issues were the biggest problem, I would sleep far more comfortably at night …

    I don’t deny the role of the Kochs and Murdoch, but green activists – esp. climate hawks – have truly played into their hands masterfully.

    Klein appears like she will come down hard on the “win-win” scenarios that you so often put forward. You may be part of the shrinking upwardly-mobile demographic, but the working poor know that when someone says, “win-win” they are going to be the ones to lose.

    Attacking me with the general attack on your perspective of ‘win-win’ is appropriate. Take on specific discussions, show where my discussions fall short, promote fruitful discussion.

    Utility costs in Europe are a prime example. Those countries that went most gung-ho for wind/solar – promising pie-in-the-sky savings are now looking at soaring costs. On top of economies that are stagnant or declining in many case – with high, endemic unemployment. For the first time since WWII, an increasing number of people in Europe are facing losing electricity. And whether in Greece or Spain or Denmark – not to mention France, Britain, and Germany – they are often attracted to right-wing populism.

    There are other factors, of course, but myopic and misguided environmental panaceas are a significant part of the equation. Klein looks like she is going to be brutal – and she should be. A politically sustainable environmental position should have been to have said, “These are the potential benefits – but these will be the likely costs. How much are we willing to pay and who pays?” But no, the green left chose to prevaricate – and in the process left many people behind.

    Actually, the ‘green’ has systematically and massively understated — across a society — benefit streams. And, your attacks on clean energy in Europe is caught within a stovepiped analysis that doesn’t capture the full benefit streams. As you are well aware, current utility models do not account for negative externalities (like pollution) that are ameliorated/eliminated by ‘green’ energy. Honest analysis shows that the benefit streams will outweigh costs — on a societal basis — and those benefits would enable easing the pain for those who (perhaps unjustly) would ‘pay’. (For example, to provide substantive resources to build up communities and individuals already devastated by extraction industries, such as in West Virginia, to (more than) compensate from lost revenues from reduction of the mining.)