The Lead

Solar energy grant program for Pa. school districts gets bipartisan support in state House

By: - June 29, 2023 6:12 pm

Superintendent Mick Iskric in front of the solar panels that power the Steelton-Highspire School District (Photo by Audrey Carleton/Capital & Main).

A handful of school districts around Pennsylvania have embraced solar energy to reduce or eliminate their utility costs and legislation passed in the state House on Thursday would give other districts an incentive to invest in renewable energy.

The Solar for Schools Act would leverage federal funding through the Inflation Reduction Act to pay for 30% to 50% of the cost of solar panel installation projects with 50% of the cost paid with state money and the balance with local funding, state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, said.

Fiedler, who is the prime sponsor of the bill, said it would return taxpayers’ federal dollars to Pennsylvania, create jobs, protect the environment, and make schools more resilient to power interruptions.

“It’s a great return on investment of our taxpayer dollars, and it’s a great deal for local school districts to be able to save millions of dollars,” Fiedler said. “I don’t know any school district that would turn down a zero electricity bill, especially as we see utilities rising and fluctuating so much.”

Lawmakers earlier this year toured a school in Middleburg, Snyder County; Freedom High School in Bethlehem; and the Steelton-Highspire School District in Dauphin County, where solar energy projects have been installed. 

Rep. Dave Madsen, D-Dauphin, whose district includes Steelton-Highspire said the installation over a reclaimed landfill provides 100% of the school district’s electricity, which can be sold back to the grid when there is extra power. The district also uses electric school buses which also serve as batteries to keep the lights on during power outages. 

“Mother Nature’s sending us some signals with extreme weather, so we really need to work toward lowering our carbon footprint,” Madsen said.

The bill passed with a bipartisan 134-69 vote and now goes to the state Senate for consideration. 

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $44.4 billion budget proposal includes significant education funding increases including $100 million to repair and remediate outdated and toxic school buildings. 

House Democrats more than doubled that in their budget bill, passed at the start of June, with $250 million to upgrade K-12 schools and career and technical schools. The Republican-controlled Senate has been silent so far on how it will answer those proposals.

The constitutional deadline for the state budget is Friday.

While the bill doesn’t have a dollar figure attached, Fiedler said she’s hopeful that it could be part of the overall budget agreement.

“I think that our caucus believes that that is possible. I think that our governor believes that it’s possible and I think with the vote today we saw that many of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle when I see this happen too,” Fiedler said.

The legislation has support from building trades groups, the American Federation of Teachers, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and environmental groups, House Democrats said in a statement.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.