Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools could power all its schools and save millions of dollars by installing solar arrays, advocates said Wednesday.
The Repower Our Schools coalition of parents, teachers and students formed a year ago. The coalition commissioned a study of solar power at CMS and Durham’s public schools by the respected Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State University.
Charlotte’s school system spends $18 million a year on electricity, the study found, nearly all of it generated by nuclear power and fossil fuels.
Solar arrays on school rooftops and in parking lots could meet all of the system’s needs, it said. Estimated savings could grow if the cost of solar panels continues to drop.
Financing arrangements in which schools and investors partner to build grid-connected solar arrays could save CMS $42 million over 25 years, the report said.
Under that arrangement, which is used by more than 100 North Carolina solar farms, an investor would claim solar tax credits – not available to a school system – that effectively lower the cost of a project. After about seven years, the partnership would “flip” to give the school sole ownership. Power sold to a utility would bring in revenue.
“What this report highlights is that renewable energy is not only an environmental issue but an economic issue,” said DeAndrea Salvador, founder of Charlotte’s Renewable Energy Transition Initiative, which helps low-income communities reduce their energy costs.
CMS supplied data for the study and got the report Monday, said Michael Zytkow, a field organizer for Greenpeace North Carolina. “We’re eagerly awaiting what they think,” he said.
Many CMS schools have already earned the federal Energy Star certification for energy efficiency, but the report said further efficiencies could cut energy usage by another 15 percent.
Phil Berman, executive director of building services for CMS, said his staff is reviewing the report. “We’ll have to determine how (solar) fits into our long-term strategy and what makes sense,” he said.
While the district owns three small solar arrays, CMS has focused on energy efficiency because that yields a higher return on investment. A 2009 effort to build a utility-scale solar installation didn’t move forward because of high costs at the time.
State policy changes could make the projects more appealing for CMS, advocates said, saving the district $54.6 million over 25 years.
Among them is allowing energy developers to sell electricity directly to their customers, called third-party sales. North Carolina law allows only utilities to sell electricity, but some legislators are interested in changing the prohibition.
“How can we ask our kids to have concern about the environment if we don’t act on an opportunity to improve it?” said Kathryn Whitfield, mother of two Chantilly Montessori students.