FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Below is a list of frequently asked questions, arranged by topic, that school board members often have when they are encouraged by local parents, students, and teachers to pass a resolution that commits the school district to 100% clean energy, building electrification, and clean transportation.
THE 100% RESOLUTION
Q: What does the resolution call on the school district to do?
A: The resolution calls on the school district to achieve 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2030, and phase-out all fossil fuels by 2040 – by electrifying heating, cooking, and cooling systems. Many resolutions also include a pledge to electrify the school bus fleet by 2040.
Q: What is 100% clean, renewable energy?
A: Solar, wind, and geothermal energy are all clean, renewable energy sources because they are derived from natural sources that are constantly replenished from the sun, wind and ground heat. Carbon-based energy sources — such as coal, gas, and oil — are not considered clean or renewable energy sources, and neither is nuclear power. Achieving 100% clean energy occurs when the amount of clean energy generated by the school district equals or exceeds 100% of the energy used.
Q: Why 100%?
A: To prevent the worst effects of climate change catastrophe, the UN’s 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report calls on urgent action across all sectors to dramatically cut emissions and move to 100% clean, renewable energy over the next two decades.
More than 200 cities and counties, 13 states, as well as large businesses such as Apple and Google, have made 100% commitments. School districts, as one of the largest energy users in a municipality, can play a meaningful role in reaching emission reduction targets. It also supports nearby cities in meeting their 100% goals, and contributes to nationwide momentum toward a 100% clean energy future for all. And moving to 100% clean energy is an important investment in the health and well-being of children and youth, who are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Drastically reducing carbon emissions is an increasingly pressing issue to students and their families. Thanks to the mobilizing efforts of students and their families, more school districts are becoming climate leaders and committing to move to 100% clean energy.
Q: After the resolution passes, what is Step One?
A: An inclusive advisory team of students, parents, teachers, and district leaders will form and work with the Facilities and Transportation Departments to create a board-approved implementation plan.
Q: How is the commitment implemented?
A: After the resolution is passed and the advisory team is formed, an assessment can be made of which options are best for the school district. The planning and implementation process will be transparent, with updates shared regularly by district leadership to the board and school community; and be rooted in values of equity and justice by highlighting the concerns of students who stand to benefit the most from cleaner air and cost-energy savings. Over the next twenty years, the Facilities Department will scale the adoption of electric HVAC systems, boilers, and stoves through its deferred maintenance schedule. As existing equipment breaks and requires replacements, they will be upgraded with cleaner and more cost-efficient models — allowing an affordable and feasible transition for the district over time.
Q: Is 10 and 20 years enough time to make these changes?
A: Yes; which is why school districts large and small — from Mounds View, MN to Los Angeles, CA — are moving to 100% clean energy by 2030 and off all fossil fuels by 2040. Given the technology we have today, these timetables provide plenty of time for school districts to meet these goals. Red Wing Public Schools achieved 100% solar energy for its seven schools through their Community Solar Garden, commissioned in 2016; and San Diego Unified is anticipating achieving 100% clean electricity before their 2030 target.
Q: Where would the school district install solar panels?
A: It’s different for each school district! Solar panels can be installed on top of roofs, parking canopies, and in offsite community solar gardens. After the resolution passes and the advisory team is formed, an assessment can determine which areas make the most sense for your district.
Q: Some buildings are old and need updating, including roofs. Does that play a part here?
A: Solar companies can often pay for roof restorations as part of the solar installation project. A roof consultant and structural engineer will review the design to make sure solar integration is appropriate. Community solar panels can also be an option where solar is located offsite and schools ‘subscribe’ to the output, as was the case with Red Wing Public Schools, where the district is scheduled to save more than $6M over the next 20 years.
Q: How long do solar panels last, and would the school district need to pay to maintain them?
A: Solar panels last between 25 – 30 years, and if the school district were to enter into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) or contract with an Energy Service Company (ESCO), the cost of maintenance would be included in the third-party agreement. We discuss PPAs more in the finance section below.
Q: Should we wait to see the results of a feasibility study before passing the resolution, or starting implementation?
A: Passing the resolution before the planning and implementation phases is critical for a few reasons: it builds support across the school community, it gives the district a chance to be celebrated in the media and broader community, and it ensures accountability. Having a feasibility study in progress while the advisory team develops an implementation plan is also helpful sequencing, because it allows the task force to collaborate with the engineers conducting the study, increasing time efficiency and productivity of the plan.
Q: Can the school district take incremental steps that coincide and reinforce pre-existing goals?
A: Yes! The resolution can greatly support the district’s goals and commitments to enhance student learning, the environment, and budget savings. It also helps state and local municipalities reach their climate goals. This resolution is designed to be incremental, that’s why there’s a 10 year implementation timeline for electricity, and 20 year timeline on HVAC, cooking, and transportation.
Q: Does the School District have the bandwidth to pursue this initiative?
A: Yes, and it must. Moving to 100% clean energy and electrifying heating, cooking, cooling, and transportation is necessary to reach emissions reduction targets and avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate collapse. Implementing these commitments will improve indoor and outdoor air quality, which is known to improve academic outcomes. And it can help reduce COVID19-related risks that most school boards are currently addressing. Commiting to 100% clean energy is a responsible and necessary goal for all school districts in the U.S. to achieve.
Q: Can school districts prevent viral infections, like COVID-19, from spreading by improving indoor air quality?
A: We know COVID-19 spreads through the air, and air pollution exacerbates the harm — a recent study shows an increase of just 1 microgram per cubic meter corresponds to a 15% increase in COVID-19 deaths. Low-income communities of color are particularly vulnerable, as they are often more exposed to air pollution. On average, indoor air has 2- 5 times more pollutants than outdoor air. Viruses can enter, settle in, and travel through school ventilation systems. Air quality solutions like electric cooking and HVAC systems are effective at improving indoor air quality, protecting the health of students and staff, and preventing the spread of airborne disease.
To help schools combat the COVID-19 pandemic, solar powered contactless hand wash/sanitizer stations are now available through PSC Solar, for about $600 U.S. dollars.
And a LED Lighting device has been manufactured to clean and circulate air. Schools may be able to use federal and state funding to help over the costs. For more info, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Will there be any upfront costs (or costs in the near future) to install solar?
A: There are no upfront costs for solar installations if the school district enters into a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with a solar installer, or works with an Energy Savings Company (ESCO).
Q: Can the school district own a solar system outright?
A: A major challenge to direct ownership is the capital commitment involved. School districts rarely have cash reserves, but may have voter-approved bonds for finances needed to purchase a solar system. Oftentimes, Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are structured so a school district has the option to buy the solar system at various points during the life of the PPA. The buyout price is typically calculated as the greater fair market value of the solar system, or the discounted cash flow of the remaining payments in the PPA term.
Q: How can the school district affordably finance 100% clean electricity?
A: The most common finance pathway for school districts to install solar energy is through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). Under a PPA, a third party installs, owns, and maintains the solar system — with no upfront costs to the school district. The installer owns the equipment for the duration of the PPA (15 – 25 yrs) and sells the energy generated by the solar panels to the school district at a fixed rate that’s lower than the utility’s rate. PPAs generate both immediate cost savings to the district, as well as net savings over the term of the contract as it hedges against rising utility costs.
Q: Why isn’t every school district moving to 100% clean energy if PPA’s require no upfront costs?
A: Though PPAs are common across the U.S., they are not available in some states (like Florida and Idaho). Even in states that allow PPAs, many school districts are simply unaware of PPAs and the economic and environmental benefits they offer. That’s why we are sharing this info with school board leaders!
Q: Does replacing HVAC, cooking, and boiler systems with electric upgrades generate financial savings for the school district?
A: There are federal, state, and local incentives that help cover initial replacement costs with installing energy efficient upgrades, but government incentives aren’t available to school districts because they are government nonprofit entities. That is why many school districts across the U.S. work with Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) on solar and energy efficiency projects. An ESCO is a business that designs, builds, and funds EE projects, enabling the ESCO to receive government incentives and pay for the capital improvements with the money saved by the project. ESCOs also assume all performance and financial risks of the projects and guarantee performance and energy cost savings. If the project doesn’t yield cost or energy savings for the school district, the ESCO pays that difference. Contracting with an ESCO is a smart and affordable way for school districts to transition to clean electricity, heating, cooking, and cooling systems.
Bullitt County Public Schools developed an energy efficiency plan that has saved nearly $3.9M in energy and operating costs over 10 years. Douglas County School District contracted with an ESCO and financed $10.7M in the first phase of EE improvements paired with a solar installation. The project achieved energy cost savings of nearly $510,000 in the first year. More examples can be found on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings website.
Q: How can implementing 100% clean energy help offset financial shortfalls related to COVID-19?
A: Energy costs are the second largest expense for schools after personnel. Solar power is a popular choice for school districts looking to save on their energy costs. Most schools going solar are doing so with no up-front costs through Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), which yield immediate budget savings that can be reinvested into students and classrooms. After installing solar power, Batesville School District in Arkansas reduced their monthly electric bill from $17,000 to $4,000 — creating $13,000 in savings within one month alone. For more details about the financial savings that are benefitting school districts across the U.S. after installing solar, see the Case Studies section of this document.
ELECTRIFYING SCHOOL BUS FLEETS
Q: How much does an electric school bus cost?
A: An electric school bus costs about $340,000 each, compared to less than $200,000 for a diesel bus. But the investment pays off in the long run, as electric buses pay for themselves over time. Electric buses cost significantly less to operate and maintain (60-80% less), and can help school districts save thousands of dollars per year. On average, one electric school bus could save a school district nearly $2,000 a year in fuel and $4,400 a year in maintenance costs.
Q: How much does it cost to fuel an electric bus?
A: The cost of charging an electric bus is about 19 cents/mile, compared to 82 cents/mile with a diesel bus. Lifetime fuel and maintenance savings for a school district is around $170,000.
Q: Is it cost effective to upgrade school bus fleets with clean, electric buses?
A: Most school buses last about 15 years, and even the most recently purchased buses are on a schedule to be replaced by 2030. Electric school buses are projected to reach cost parity with diesel buses as soon as 2025. As the price of batteries continues to fall each year and electric transportation technology improves, so will the upfront costs of electric school buses.
Q: Why are maintenance costs for electric buses much lower than conventional buses?
A: A diesel bus has 2,000-plus moving parts in it. An electric bus has 26, so there’s much fewer parts to maintain and less parts to wear out.
Q: Why are electric school buses preferable over compressed natural gas (CNG) school buses?
A: Electric school buses have lower global warming emissions than CNG buses (19-85% lower, depending on how clean the local utility grid is).
Q: Why are electric buses preferable over fuel cell (hydrogen) school buses?
A: According to Department of Energy reports, fuel cell buses haven’t demonstrated viability for the commercial school bus market, in terms of cost, durability, range, and availability .
Q: Which school districts have adopted electric buses, and how has it worked out for them?
A: Today, less than 1% of school buses in the U.S. are electric, but that is starting to change thanks to the increase in state and federal grant money available to school districts. It’s unknown how many electric school buses are in operation today, but the EPA has a list of school district recipients of electric school bus rebates through the DERA program — there may be some that have been deployed in your state.
Early adopters of electric school buses include school districts in California, Michigan, and New York, with many financial and environmental benefits to those school districts. Through the Volkswagen Mitigation Settlement funds, many more electric school buses will deploy in 2020 across several states, including Washington, Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Indiana, Vermont, and Missouri. Virginia school districts, through an innovative partnership with Dominion Energy, will have 50 electric school buses by the end of 2020, with plans to have 1,000 electric school buses on state roads by 2025.
Q: Are there federal / state grants available for electric school buses?
A: As part of the $2.7B Volkswagen Mitigation Settlement, millions of dollars in settlement funds have been allocated to each state to invest in clean transportation programs, including electric school buses. Many states have announced plans to invest in electric school buses, such as …. To learn if your state has plans to invest in electric school buses, check with the Beneficiary Agency in your state selected to allocate the VW settlement funds.
The U.S. EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) School Bus Rebates Program gives awardees $15K – $20K for each old school bus with an internal combustion engine that is replaced with an electric school bus. School districts are encouraged to engage with their utility to secure the most beneficial rate structure to accommodate charging and to seek charging infrastructure investments.
Highland Electric Transportation is a developer and owner of electric school bus projects (both buses and charging stations), that works with school districts to solve upfront costs and guarantees budget neutrality. They offer a fixed annual fee to the school district with a 10-year contracted bundle price – within the district’s current transportation budget – for electric school bus leases, charging equipment installation, and all maintenance. Their staff work with stakeholders and district leaders to apply for grants and incentives available at the utility, state, and federal levels.
Q: How can we serve equity and racial justice in our electric school bus deployment?
A: Crucial question. It’s easy for white people to think, “Our bus-lines serve mostly low-income students already, so we’re good to go, thanks!” This thinking denies deep-seated inequity and doesn’t move fairness forward. Engage the right people, and listen. Research air pollution levels across your district, cross-reference that data with your bus route locations (and where the highest needs are), and incorporate what you learn into your plans.
Q: How can the school district install charging infrastructure for electric school buses?
A: In addition to rebates through the U.S. EPA DERA program, states, and utilities, Highland Electric Transportation solves all upfront costs of electric school bus adoption, including installation and maintenance of charging stations.
Q: Why should new propane school buses be replaced with electric buses?
A: Electric school buses are better than propane buses because the batteries can store energy when they’re not in use. These batteries can provide vehicle-to-grid technology, allowing the buses to feed power to the utility grid during periods of high demand. This can create a new revenue source for school districts, and serve as power sources during grid failure. This is happening in New York and California, and set to start in Virginia. Additionally, propane buses are not as clean as electric buses, as propane is derived from a dirty fuel (petroleum) that contributes to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. This is also why propane buses are less safe — the tanks are more susceptible to explode, as propane is a flammable gas.
Q: What happens if the utility grid goes down and buses are unable to charge?
A: 100% solar energy supports electric school buses by allowing the school district to remain powered when the grid fails. This is because solar arrays are not reliant on the grid, but on sun power. And the batteries on electric school buses allow the school district to have a readily available supply of backup power, which can serve the local community when schools must serve as emergency shelter sites. The battery power can also feed back into the grid during peak demand through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capability — which can be an additional revenue source for the district.