Bright minds, bright futures—bright lights when the power is out? Schools are a meeting place for Florida communities: providing education and recreational opportunities for students, bringing neighborhoods together, and providing steady employment in big cities and small towns alike. Schools can double as emergency shelters when disaster strikes, and hurricane-prone Florida should enhance public safety by letting local school districts deploy solar and back-up battery power to every school serving as an emergency shelter.
During previous attempts to add solar to school buildings, lawmakers have been more truant than Ferris Bueller. Will 2023 be the year solar schools make the grade?
Adding affordable solar energy helps control spiraling electricity costs and schools across America are rushing to take advantage. This is no weird science, nearly 1 in 10 public schools have solar providing some or all of their energy, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars, and directing more investment to education and less of the budget to utility companies and their shareholders. With yet another utility rate hike reaching into Floridians’ wallets and school districts’ budgets, available cost savings grow every day.
Schools with solar have proven they deliver savings. But can they create additional value by using solar to keep the public safe when disaster strikes? A pilot program sponsored by the Florida Solar Energy Center delivered results after Hurricane Irma, keeping the power on to provide hot food and device charging at 115 schools around the state. Half a decade later, technological advances in batteries and microgrids can transform schools into emergency shelters in a win-win for schools and communities.
What makes solar schools plug-and-play emergency shelters?
Schools have all the attributes that make for good shelters:
- Large buildings with assembly areas, kitchens, and walk-in refrigerators that allow for the storage, preparation, and distribution of food and medicine.
- Most have on-site parking lots where first responders and recovery workers can stage supplies and park vehicles.
- On-site recreational facilities and libraries allow displaced community members to stay active and find productive outlets while initial recovery efforts, inspections, and triage are completed.
- Open spaces and large roofs are perfect sites for harnessing the sun’s energy for savings and disaster resilience.
Bigger school solar arrays and on-site battery storage will provide reliable power for recovery activities, charge electric vehicles and equipment, and provide refuge for displaced residents and first responders. As Florida school districts transition to electric buses, they can use buses’ large batteries as an additional resource to help power equipment, transport residents, and provide safe and secure areas without the need to maintain expensive generators limited by available fuel.
Even in shorter outages, solar schools will allow students to finish their day uninterrupted using on-site backup power, without parents having to leave work or make hasty arrangements. As the energy transition picks up steam on-site renewable tech will provide learning opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience with future power systems.
Solar on Florida Schools: Not Making the Grade
Florida schools are falling behind states with far less sunshine. In 2022, Florida ranked 29th out of all states for installed solar capacity and even lower per person. At least 14 states have 4 times as much solar already installed, including Indiana, Ohio, and Minnesota, which are not the first places that come to mind when you think of sunny getaway destinations. Hawaii, with less than 10% of Florida’s population, has built 3 times as much solar on school buildings. How can Florida catch up?
Florida can accelerate these improvements by passing SB 178 sponsored by Senator Lori Berman and its companion bill HB 195, which removes red tape standing in the way of local schools adopting more solar and storage. Florida’s largest school district has committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, with solar playing a central part in achieving that goal. It’s a win-win for taxpayers, delivering long-term relief to school budgets and backstopping public safety. Florida legislators should revive proposals to remove regulatory hurdles for schools that want to invest in solar energy.