Pa. could be a model for solar-powered schools — If it can get past political divisions

A new bill would marry labor, environmental and educational interests — potentially forging a new path for bipartisan climate policy

By: - Tuesday June 27, 2023 6:30 am

Pa. could be a model for solar-powered schools — If it can get past political divisions

A new bill would marry labor, environmental and educational interests — potentially forging a new path for bipartisan climate policy

By: - 6:30 am

(Getty Images).

(Getty Images).

By Audrey Carleton

The small Steelton-Highspire School District, a few miles south of Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River, consists of just three buildings — an elementary school, a high school and an administrative office.

They sit on just over 50 acres and serve some 1,400 students, according to superintendent Mick Iskric. They’re unassuming, and at first glance, obfuscate a large structure from view: Tucked behind one building, between the elementary students’ playground and the high school students’ football field, sit a few dozen rows of solar panels that, for a little more than a year, have generated enough power to meet all of this modest district’s energy needs.

Iskric has a laundry list of projects in view for Steelton-Highspire — many of which, including the solar array, are born out of necessity. A low-income district, it’s been operating at an annual deficit for 14 years, he says. It’s located in a legacy steel town, where the crash of the industry and the 2008 recession both depressed the property tax base, leaving its schools without sufficient funds for educational programming, teacher salaries and much-needed infrastructure upgrades.

So, the district sought out new revenue sources — and, in 2019, turned to solar energy. It crafted a purchase-power agreement with a local solar developer, located acreage on top of an old landfill, and installed enough solar panels to generate 1.7 megawatts of electricity — “roughly 3,500 panels,” Iskric says. That’s enough power for both schools and then some — the district will save an estimated $1.6 million over the course of its 20-year agreement with the developer, at variable rates per month depending on the surplus energy the panels generate and feed back to the grid, he says.

“All that savings, what we’re trying to do is get more funding to offset our expenses and get more programming for students,” Iskric told Capital & Main. “The more money I save, the more support I can get directly into the classroom.”

Iskric turned to solar out of necessity, but he hopes to see other districts follow Steelton-Highspire’s lead regardless of their financial standing. And a bill nearing the Pennsylvania House floor would make it easier than ever for that to happen.

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

As the June 30 deadline to approve a new state budget approaches on Friday, the state Legislature is currently weighing House Bill 1032, legislation that would create a Solar for Schools (“Solar 4 PA Schools”) grant program to help the commonwealth’s school districts build large-scale solar arrays to power public K-12, community college and career technical school facilities.

An earlier version of the bill, HB 137, specifically allocated $500 million to this cause. In April, the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, a progressive Democrat from Philadelphia, introduced the newer version of the bill, which lacks a specific price tag and is now moving forward.

Currently, less than 2% of Pennsylvania’s nearly 7,000 schools are powered by solar energy, according to a report by Generation 180, a nonprofit clean energy advocacy group. The rest source electricity from the regional grid, which is powered primarily by a mix of coal, gas and nuclear.

Pa. lawmakers propose grant program to fund solar projects at K-12 schools, colleges

Generation 180 estimates that if all K-12 schools in the commonwealth installed “average-sized” solar, they would avert the equivalent of 3.8 gas-fired power plants worth of carbon dioxide emissions. Pennsylvania’s solar industry at large, meanwhile, is in its infancy — less than 1% of energy generated comes from the sun.

The Solar for Schools grant program, Fiedler said at a May hearing in the Capitol, would represent a “win-win-win-win-win” for the state. It would help facilitate Pennsylvania’s slow-going clean energy transition; create new jobs in the solar industry; save schools utility costs, while generating revenue for much-needed infrastructure upgrades; prevent municipalities from having to raise local property taxes in turn; and facilitate the creation of educational programming on renewable energy for students.

“I think it’s a good piece of legislation,” Fiedler told Capital & Main in an interview. “And I think it’s something that a lot of people can get behind.”

Indeed, legislators across the country have gotten behind proposals like this one in the past. In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that allocated $16 million for solar projects on K-12 schools and $5 million for community colleges. Prior to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), schools were ineligible for existing renewable energy tax credits as nonprofit entities that do not pay taxes. (The IRA includes a “direct pay” option for tax-exempt entities, thus nullifying this concern.)

A specialized fund made it possible for schools to build out renewable energy and reap the climate and utility savings benefits that come with it. And the program proved competitive: The Minnesota Department of Commerce received 122 applications — $11.8 million in grant requests — in the first round of funding, and went on to award $7.5 million across 45 school districts. “Demand for Solar for Schools grants has already exceeded the funds available,” an informational page on the state website reads.

In Pennsylvania, the Solar for Schools proposal is already showing promise of becoming just as popular, while forging a new political pathway for clean energy policy that might otherwise get passed up in the second-largest natural gas-producing state in the country.

Until this session, in a once Republican-dominated Legislature, climate bills have had a hard time moving out of the committees into which they’re introduced. Democrats now have a slim majority in the House, to which the bill advanced on May 23 from the House Consumer Protection, Technology & Utilities committee, where it was passed unanimously with support from both parties.

“This sounds like a great opportunity. I can think of a number of school districts that could already do this,” said Rep. Jim Marshall,  of Beaver County, the ranking Republican on the House Consumer Protection, Technology & Utilities committee, during a May 2 hearing on the bill a few weeks before the committee’s vote.

Bipartisan support will be crucial to getting the bill through the House — where even symbolic environmental policy, like establishing a “Skip the Straw Day,” is passing with a slim majority along party lines — and into the Senate, which has maintained a Republican majority and has thus far remained a breeding ground for anti-regulatory environmental policies. One month after advancing from committee, the bill has yet to be called up to the House floor; per The Keystone, it was slated to move in mid-June, but was held up by another representative from Philadelphia, Republican Martina White, who attempted to attach an unrelated anti-immigration amendment to it.

Around the same time, the House Progressive Caucus, which Fieldler chairs, formally requested that $300 million for the Solar for Schools program be worked into the state budget as negotiations unfold before the June 30 deadline.

Rep. Fiedler says she is optimistic the proposal will move soon. She told Capital & Main prior to the House committee vote that she saw a rare opportunity in the House Democratic majority to introduce policy that meaningfully addresses climate, labor and educational interests in the same go.

Pa. schools have doubled their solar power use since 2020

The bill marries facets of the political psyche that are often at odds in Pennsylvania — good energy policy with funding for education, which have in the past been traded come budget negotiation time, and climate protection with labor interests. Rep. Fiedler, who co-chairs the House Blue-Green Caucus, said her team sought input from a range of stakeholders as she was drafting HB 1032 — a process that was “really fun and really rewarding,” she said.

“Bringing in stakeholders who aren’t always at the table together, who aren’t always on the same side of an issue,” she said. “We did a ton of work behind the scenes before this was ever a reality, just to talk to people.”

This approach has also proven politically savvy. She’s received buy-in from environmental and educational groups — the Sierra Club, PennFuture, PennEnvironment, the Sunrise Movement and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association among them — and from labor groups such as the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania and IBEW-Mid Atlantic, to name a few. (The latter camp, both Democrats and Republicans perennially walk a tightrope to retain support from.) The bill, Fiedler says, has garnered “bipartisan interest in both chambers.”

“Reaping more benefits from solar is a smart thing to do,” she said. “It’s a smart thing to do financially, it’s a smart thing to do environmentally, and I think it’s something that many people, including people who disagree about other things, agree on.”

“Even if they may not agree 100% about some other pieces of energy policy,” she added.

Notably, the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, a coalition of unions in the state, has thrown its weight behind the bill. In the past, the organization and its member unions have testified in support of natural gas projects and against carbon caps — but on a foggy Tuesday morning in early May, in front of the House Consumer Protection, Technology & Utilities committee, Building Trades President Robert Bair showed up at the Capitol to help advance a bill that would expand the state’s solar economy.

“This started last November, when Rep. Fiedler and I sat down in Philly,” Bair told the committee. “It’s no secret her and I had been at odds on energy at times. And she said, ‘What can we do to work together?’”

Bair told the committee he had a vision: “A megawatt for every school district in Pennsylvania.”

“We can move most of our schools to net zero. Imagine the savings over 30 years,” he continued. “We have an opportunity to get our students in front of green energy, they can have access to watching the building trades install it, we can create family-sustaining jobs.”

That vision is similar to one that Iskric, Steelton-Highspire’s superintendent, has cultivated for his district. In this vision, electric buses shuttle students in and out; solar-powered lights beam down on the football field; prospective homeowners flock to the area to take advantage of bill credits for investing in local community solar; and students enroll in apprenticeship programs in the renewable energy industry.

“You realize you’re sparking interest,” Iskric says of his students, who see the arrays installed and maintained up close. “That’s what we’re all about here, exposing kids to experiences, providing opportunities for their futures.”

Iskric has mental blueprints for installing solar panels on other pieces of the district’s 50-some acres, including in the schools’ parking lot, where they’ll generate surplus energy to serve to the grid or send to urban school districts that lack the acreage to build their own arrays. (Pennsylvania law does not currently allow community solar plans like this one, and debate on this is playing out in the Legislature separately.)

Iskric is glad Steelton-Highspire made the switch to solar when it did. But without the funds to build solar arrays of their own, the district was forced to do so via an arrangement called a power-purchase agreement, in which a third-party developer negotiates the design, permitting, financing and installation of arrays in exchange for space that the customer gives them. The developer owns the assets — the actual solar panels — and the customer buys energy from them at a preset price for a set number of years.

This model works for cash-strapped school districts that can’t manage the financing of their own arrays. But a direct ownership model, in which the school district pays a developer to install arrays but owns and operates them thereafter, can generate hundreds of thousands more dollars in savings for schools, which are not beholden to a rate set by a third party, Iskric says.

Fiedler’s bill envisions more of the latter: But she and her colleagues are banking on financial input from the federal IRA to make direct ownership models more accessible for Pennsylvania schools.

The IRA extended an existing Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and Production Tax Credit (PTC) for renewable energy generation, for which schools would be eligible should they install their own solar. These credits cover 30% of the funds an energy producer spends to install solar either upfront, in the case of the ITC, or upon production by the kilowatt-hour, in the case of the PTC. An additional 10% is available to schools that are either located in low-income communities or “energy communities,” where the economy was once based around fossil fuels. (Some two-thirds of Pennsylvania schools fall into at least one of these categories, according to Shannon Crooker, Pennsylvania state director of Generation 180.)

In sum, schools could see up to 50% of the cost of installing solar arrays covered by the federal government. Via the grant program, the state could pick up most or all of the rest of the tab.

Iskric has no regrets about having already transitioned Steelton-Highspire to solar before these credits were available. But he’s still eager to see HB 1072 pass.

“We would have saved more if we would have waited,” he says, alluding to the extra tax credits for low-income communities allotted by the IRA. “But, you know, we had to jump on it when we did.”

“And now,” he adds, “with Rep. Fiedler’s bill, this could be a game-changer for school districts.”

Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where this story first appeared.

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