Getting a first-time solar system up and running can be a complicated and overwhelming project for many homeowners. But setting up solar in public-owned buildings can be even more daunting, where a lack of available resources, institutional and political will can all get in the way.
Online platform Solar Schools, which launches today, hopes to solve some of these problems for communities that want to jumpstart the process. Schools can use the platform to initiate a solar crowdfunding campaign and get technical help on how to navigate the setup process.
“It’s still really hard for schools to get solar in a lot of places, in part because of natural limitations on school administrators as well as local permitting, contracting and zoning challenges,” said Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
NRDC initiated the project as a resource to address some of these challenges, Greene said. “It’s designed to help communities break down that process into bite-sized pieces and partner with organizations to help with the permitting process.”
The pilot phase, which starts this month and will run for approximately six months, is designed to give NRDC the time to refine the Solar Schools idea, refine the platform itself and surface more organizations to help and train community leaders.
The Solar Schools platform does not seek to reinvent solar tools or calculators that already exist. “It’s more of a curated resource — and more importantly — access to peers and experts who can guide communities through the process,” Greene said.
In late November or early December, Solar Schools will bring together between five to 10 leaders from different school communities for an in-person technical training sessions with expert organizations. The strength of each school’s crowdfunding campaign will serve as one criteria for which schools get chosen to participate in the pilot.
“Part of the reason we’re using crowdfunding is to see where there’s hotspots of enthusiasm,” Greene said.
Attendees will get trained on the Solar Schools platform as well as receive access to consulting partner organizations. Each will be experienced in one aspect of the setup process — from local solar and renewable energy policy help from the City University of New York (CUNY) to how to conduct solar fundraising campaigns with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Community organizing will be included in the curriculum, Greene said, so that leaders can gather support on a wide scale.
Greene says that Solar Schools hopes to include a range of leaders as participants in its training — not just school employees, administrators or board members, but active community members such as PTA parents or members of church groups.
Because regulations and codes vary at the local level, Solar Schools will determine additional consulting partners with expertise that apply to pilot participants, Greene said.
Consultants will be available after the in-person training is over — not to do the work itself, Greene emphasized, but to guide pilot participants on what steps needed to forge ahead. “It’s not a linear process — it’s more of putting together a puzzle,” he said.
The goal of the pilot period is for participants to determine what they want in a solar system. “No school will get all the way to having solar on the roof in six months,” Greene said.
Solar Schools might also benefit project developers as well. Because public school systems must send out a public call for bids, developers that invest time in helping schools determine what type of system to install do not always receive the contract in the end.
“Those that go through initial screenings with schools are undermined,” he said. “Instead, Solar Schools can help the communities go through the technical and economic analysis.”
Another challenge developers have when working with schools, Greene said, is navigating through a school district’s layers of bureaucracy to determine the actual customer.
Through the resources offered by Solar Schools, he said, the school and community can identify this before making contact with potential developers.
NRDC hopes to expand Solar Schools to the national level after the pilot phase wraps up.