Ask Renewable Rayna: Can Educational Institutions Save By Going Solar?

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Solar Powering Education 

For school districts and institutes of higher education considering ways to save, solar should be at the top of the list.  The average Arkansas retail electricity price is 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to June data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and on average, schools could save 4-6 cents/kWh by flipping the switch on solar.

A combination of federal and state tax advantages and recent legislation creates an avenue for schools to guarantee savings with no upfront capital costs.   

Solar Access Bill 

According to Michael Henderson, President of Today’s Power, Inc. (TPI), a Little Rock based renewable developer, “Interest in solar by governmental and educational entities has really escalated.” He said changes in law and tax incentives add up to a good bottom line. 

Signed into law in February of 2019, the Solar Access Bill [Act 464 of 2019], allows third-party leasing, which allows schools and universities to host and take advantage of the benefits of a solar system.  The bill also increased the limitations on size for commercial projects from 300 kW to 1,000 kW of solar PV. 

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Even though the solar is most impactful when owned directly, as you retain 100 percent of the benefits, the ownership is not always feasible. The Solar Access Bill allows more Arkansans, such as tax-exempt entities like educational institutes, to participate in the economic benefits of solar. 

The method has become particularly popular as costs for solar continue to fall and business and not-for-profit interests increasingly see solar as a viable and affordable energy option.

SAU Tech

The first institute of higher education to take advantage of this new bill was Southern Arkansas University Tech who saw the potential in solar power when Today’s Power installed solar power at OECC’s Camden headquarters. 

A partnership model between SAU Tech, TPI and OECC required coordination with the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration, local legislators and the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

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This 10-acre project is a single-axis tracking technology of approximately 3,344 panels located near OECC’s 1-MW array in Holly Springs and should be sustainable for more than 25 years, providing $105,000 in savings annually. According to Dr. Morrison, “The energy savings will be used to invest back into the institution, students and the future of the college and our community.”

 “SAU Tech is proud to be the leader among Arkansas’ higher education institutions looking to solar technology to reduce energy costs. Our vision is to incorporate long-term efficiency in the operation of our campus to keep college affordable for students and to be good stewards of our state dollars,” said Dr. Jason Morrison.  

Securing Low-cost Energy 

New solar projects may easily slip down the list of priorities when students and educators come first, but the U.S. Department of Energy estimates K-12 schools spend more than $6 billion per year on energy, and energy costs in many districts are second only to salaries. 

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In the higher education sector, yearly energy costs add up to more than $14 billion.  Dr. Morrison believes that, “as a state-funded college, it is our responsibility to use all the means available to us to be fiscally responsible, and creating an avenue for sustainable, renewable energy for our campus is a great example of an action toward that goal.

READ MORE: Arkansas Energy Legislation

Jennah Denney