Written by Intern Josh G.

Achieving sustainability in schools is never as simple and straightforward as it should be. From reluctant school officials to limited funding, any effort to reduce the education sector’s impact on the climate crisis is often ignored and rejected. As a student at Cherry Creek High School, my advocacy for climate action has gone mostly unnoticed. From pushing for the removal of styrofoam trays in the cafeteria to advocating for increased recycling efforts, school administration has struck down all attempts to reduce our carbon footprint. Becoming the president of Cherry Creek’s sustainability club has allowed me to lead a new project: an initiative to install solar panels on the school.

As the country tries to navigate the reopening of our businesses, restaurants, and schools, fundamental changes will need to be made to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic as stronger and healthier communities. It has become clear that one of the most prominent solutions to the financial crisis is transitioning to renewable energy. There is no better time to shift to green energy now that essentially every industry needs ways to cut costs and stay in operation. As a cheaper and more efficient alternative to fossil fuels, renewable energy will be critical to the long-term sustenance of these industries and a major contributor to the fight against climate change.


Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale – December 5, 2008


The public education system has been hit particularly hard by coronavirus-related budget cuts, especially due to the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ advocacy for rerouting relief funds away from public schools in favor of private institutions. The CARES Act, which was passed in March, provides $13 billion in federal aid to public schools nationwide, including $510 million to Colorado schools. The 2020 Colorado budget still plans to reduce education spending by 15% overall and an average of 5% per pupil, depending on the school district. Our schools have had to cut teacher salaries and important programs to compensate for the catastrophic slashes in their budgets. Districts that are teaching remotely also have to provide computer and internet access to their students. For districts that are fortunate enough to return partly or completely in-person, according to the Association for School Business Officials International, an average-sized school district will have to spend at least an additional $1.7 million to operate under safety guidelines.

Green energy is an ideal solution to working around budget cuts and providing better educational tools to students across the country. According to the US Department of Energy, taxpayers spend over $6 billion on energy costs for K-12 schools every year. Solar energy provides a more sustainable and cost-efficient alternative for schools to meet their energy needs. Electricity and air conditioning are major expenses for schools and the biggest contributors to the climate crisis, so energy generation through cheaper renewable energy will open up more possibilities for funding. Solar panels produce no greenhouse gas emissions to generate electricity, so they are an ideal form of renewable energy for Colorado, which receives over 300 days of sunshine every year. Solar power is the cheapest energy source in the world, and schools must take advantage of this resource. The large, empty roofs of schools can easily accommodate a system of solar panels. With more and more students becoming passionate about the environment and protesting the lack of climate action by the government, a transition to renewable energy would be widely accepted by student bodies and staff alike.


Photo Credit: Photovoltaik Dachanlage Hannover – Schwarze Heide


A primary factor that keeps people away from solar is the high upfront cost of the panels and installations. It could cost millions of dollars for a school district to transition to 100% renewable energy, but this cost will benefit schools over time, as the school will essentially be generating “free” electricity once the panels are paid off.  Schools can also apply for grants and tax credits to help cover the cost. The options are abundant: the American Solar Energy Society is a non-profit that helps fund over 100 schools solar installations; the US Department of Energy provides grant programs to clean energy initiatives; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory assists schools in the design process and connects schools to tax credit opportunities; power companies in many states also have programs to fund school solar projects.

 The inequality of funding distribution must be addressed for a successful and just transition to renewables. Schools receive a majority of their budget from property taxes; therefore, schools in wealthy neighborhoods have more money and inherently better school systems. Although the current options need to be expanded, by taking advantage of the aforementioned grants and tax credits, any school has the opportunity to install solar panels and save in the future. We must take advantage of grants and the power of fundraising to make this a reality for every school. Schools should not be held back from pursuing clean energy projects, especially once they are made aware of the long-term savings and benefits of solar. 


Black Rock Solar, a nonprofit entity, installed a 31 kilowatt photovoltaic array at Rainshadow Community Charter High School in Reno, Nevada. – Photo Credit: EarthTalk®


Savings from cheaper renewable energy can go towards programs like art, music, and other extracurricular opportunities that have faded away with budget cuts. Green schools would also make way for educational programs about sustainability and the climate crisis; students would garner interest in the clean energy that powers their schools, so investing in sustainable education would allow the renewable energy industry to continue to expand. Schools powered by renewable energy would set an example in their communities for business and students alike, providing yet another incentive to switch.  Solar power will also give way to better teacher salaries and improved benefits for faculty.  Teachers have had to strike and protest for fair pay, so solar projects in schools would ideally increase salaries while simultaneously making the school more sustainable.

Overall, transitioning to solar power is the best solution to recovering from the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  This has already been proven by Michigan City Area Schools in Indiana, which has seven school locations powered by solar energy and will save $704K annually, and $23 million over the next 30 years.  Colorado has the capabilities to make this a reality, so we climate activists must push for projects like these to succeed in our schools.  Every dollar counts in these times, and they should be going towards educating our future leaders of sustainability, not to the pollutive behavior of the past.

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