Go the Extra Mile Introduction - Planning & Financing for On-site Renewable Energy Systems

How to decide on a plan
So, your school is interested in the possibility of installing solar panels, a wind turbine, or geothermal pumps? But, how the heck do you go about doing something like that?

Every school in the country has a tight budget, so you’re going to think about money first, right? You not only need to decide what will be economically feasible for you, but how do you convince fellow school administrators and tax payers that it’s worth it?

But, before you even start crunching numbers, you want to have the lowest energy demand possible so that whatever project you take on will be as small and least expensive as possible. In other words, make sure your school has undergone an extensive energy audit first, and a subsequent energy conservation campaign. Schools can often cut out a large fraction of their electricity demand through no or low-cost solutions. Then, whether you consider solar, wind, or another energy source, the system you’ll need to install can be less extensive, and therefore, less expensive.

Once you’ve taken the action to conserve energy and reduce your overall consumption, there are important factors to consider in whether or not you should invest in an energy source and which one to invest in.
  • Consider what funding incentives are available to you locally and nationally? Sometimes these opportunities are only available for a particular type of energy source, like solar, for example. Furthermore, they may only be available for a specific type of solar, like solar hot water.
  • What will the payback period be for each potential energy system? The “payback period” considers how much money you’ll save on energy costs over time and is an estimation of how many years it will take for the system to pay for itself.
  • Is there net-metering available? “Net-metering” is a system where you can send extra energy you produce directly to the grid for credit. In return, that credit provides you with electricity during the night or other times when you can’t produce enough to meet your needs. It reduces or eliminates the need for a battery, and is currently available in 35 states! To see if it’s available in your state and what the details are, see the Table of State and Utility Net-Metering Rules from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.
  • Remember that with renewable energy, it’s not one type fits all. Although wind and solar power are versatile in that these can be effectively used in many areas around the country, it’s good to find out if there is enough energy available for your specific needs, and which one may be the smartest to use in your particular area. The Dynamic Maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show where the richest resources are for solar, wind, and biomass. The maps are a bit complicated to use, so make sure you read the directions here. If you’re interested in geothermal, check out this map from the Geo-Heat Center. Just looking at the maps will not be enough to make an informed decision, however. You’ll want to conduct an assessment of the potential energy source you’re considering. More information about assessing feasibility is available under each specific energy source section.
While developing your plan, you’ll have to find an answer for all the objections and concerns you’ll likely face from fellow administrators and taxpayers in the community. Questions you’ll likely face might include:
  • Is the renewable energy system you’re considering credible? Does it actually work and will it actually produce enough energy?
  • How much of the electricity demand can reasonably be expected to come from the on-site renewable source?
  • Will the energy system stand up to the test of time and weather?
  • Will maintenance personnel receive training on how to operate and fix the system, and if not, will a contractor be hired to complete those tasks?
  • How will you protect the investment and ensure that the system operates to its full potential? Will you use commissioning?
You’ll be able to answer these questions after studying the energy source you’re considering by using the resources we present later under each specific type of energy.

It will also be helpful to brainstorm a list of benefits that decision-makers may overlook. For example...
  • It can give you energy independence from the volatile market of constantly changing electricity prices. And remember that some of these systems, like solar and geothermal, can not only produce electricity, but also heat, meaning that you could avoid the rising prices of natural gas, propane, or oil as well.
  • You might not be affected by blackouts if you produce enough electricity from your system to meet your needs.
  • An on-site renewable energy system doesn’t have to produce all the electricity you need in order to save you money in the long-run. Not only will you be producing at least a portion of clean, cheap energy, but you could save even more by connecting the power system to the grid. First, you could ensure that you don’t go over the “base rate,” in a tiered rate system where utilities charge extra when your building exceeds the set base rate. Second, if your utility offers TOU Metering (Time-of-Use Metering), then the price of electricity varies according to the time of day or the season. Wind and especially solar power systems could produce most of their output during this time, meaning that you would purchase the least amount of your electricity from the grid when it’s most expensive. This equals savings!
  • Dig up all the environmental benefits you can find with the help of our Upload Knowledge Section. For example, having an on-site renewable energy source not only helps fight global warming by reducing greenhouse gases, but also cuts down significantly on the numerous other pollutants that power plants produce like sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain and respiratory problems, and mercury, which is linked to neurological and developmental disorders.
  • The school’s environmental stewardship can serve as a lasting role-model for students.
  • Having an on-site renewable energy source gives students a unique opportunity to learn about energy technology and environmental impact first hand. Our curriculum library can help teachers in your school find quality curriculum to accompany the project you take on.
  • Students can take pride in the school, and this can inspire them to take better care of it and also spread their pride to parents and to the greater community.
  • Going green is great for public relations, making the whole community proud.
For more benefits to win over decision-makers, check out the Key points for a Winning Argument from the Department of Energy and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Planning guides
These guides are mostly for making a new or existing building as efficient energy-wise and waste-wise as possible, considering more than just on-site renewable energy toward that goal. But, most of the concepts presented in these documents will prove useful in planning, financing, and setting benchmarks no matter how small your project is:
  • Basic Planning Concepts and Steps from EnergySmart Schools
  • The Building Blocks by the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships is a little more detailed, but still only explains the basic topics to consider in designing and implementing an upgrade strategy or undergoing new green construction.
  • The Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings provides an approach to achieve 30% energy savings in your school considering many different types of energy improvements. The guide can be downloaded after filling out your school’s information here.
Oh no! Where’s the funding?

Guides for Financing

Funding Opportunities from the State & Federal Government
Funding Opportunities from Non-profits
Local funding opportunities
    The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency not only points out local funding incentives, but also provides local rules, regulations, and state policies that could influence your decision.

    Many state governments and local organizations have their own databases for local financial incentives, so it pays to do some research. For example, Maryland’s Energy Administration has this helpful state program.
Funding organizations for specific renewable technologies
Many organizations or databases provide information about financial incentives specifically for a particular type of energy, like solar. Links to these places are mentioned in each of their respective on-site renewable energy sections.

Performance Contracting
Many schools have successfully used “performance contracting” for general energy efficiency upgrades such as replacing heating system components or renovating the building envelope. But some performance contractors have recently done on-site renewable energy projects like geothermal heat pump and solar hot water pump installations.

“Performance contracting” is when a company comes into the school and focuses on conserving energy in a program to reduce energy costs. A certified performance contractor (known as an ESCO) takes on the technical and financial aspects of an energy project and assumes the financial risks associated with the project because they guarantee the energy savings. To find out more about how an ESCO can help finance your energy project, click
here. For more information about how to use an ESCO in your school, read the Guide for Performance Contracting in Schools by the DOE. And to see how other schools have already benefited, check out Energy Performance Contract Case Studies by Jessica Lefevre of the DOE.

To search for a certified performance contractor in your area, click here.

Plan for and track the project’s progress with the help of Portfolio Manager
Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager can help your district keep track of all energy and waste systems in buildings district-wide. It can also help you weigh different options for potential energy improvements. Then, once you undertake a project, like installing Photovoltaic solar panels, Portfolio Manager can help you track the productivity and impact of the project.