Solar Panel Options for Colleges and Universities

Solar power is one of the top options for alternative, clean energy. Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity, while traditional energy sources draw power from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, but solar power is renewable source of energy.

People have recognized the value of solar power, and this energy source is on the rise. Within the next five years, the market is expected to triple in size, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The top 10 states with the most megawatts of solar power installed through last year are:

  • California: 18,296 megawatts
  • North Carolina: 3,016 megawatts
  • Arizona: 2,982 megawatts
  • Nevada: 2,191 megawatts
  • New Jersey: 1,991 megawatts
  • Utah: 1,489 megawatts
  • Massachusetts: 1,487 megawatts
  • Georgia: 1,432 megawatts
  • Texas: 1,215 megawatts
  • New York: 927 megawatts

Solar panels can be designed to power anything from a single-family home to an entire office building — and with benefits that range from environmental impact to cost savings, solar panels are natural opportunity for universities and K-12 school districts, too. Here is everything you need to know about installing solar panels on a university campus.


The Different Types of Solar Power

The two most basic types of solar power are active and passive. Active solar technology uses either an electric or a mechanical device to convert sunlight into energy, while passive solar technology does not use any supportive devices. Instead, passive solar power is achieved through design. Strategically placed windows and specific building materials can naturally take advantage of the sun’s energy for warmth and cooling.

Three of the most common active solar technologies are concentrating solar power (CSP), solar heating and cooling and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy. CSP technology uses mirrors and lenses to concentrate sunlight, which in turn is used to power engines that create electricity. Solar heating and cooling systems draw heat from sunlight, which is used to heat water and power heating and cooling systems. Solar panels use PV energy. These types of systems consist of:

  • At least one solar panel
  • A power converter
  • Electrical interconnections
  • Mounting equipment

Solar panels can be made of different types of materials, each of which has a different efficiency level. The three most common materials, and their respective efficiency levels, include: Thin film: 12 percent, Polycrystalline: 15 percent, Monocrystalline: 18 to 20 percent


The Cost of Installing Solar Panels

A solar panel system is an expensive investment, but the price is not nearly as high as it once was. As more individuals and businesses are investing in solar power, the installation prices are beginning to drop. From the fourth quarter of 2015 to the fourth quarter of 2016, solar prices dropped 29 percent. Since 2011, prices have dropped 67 percent.


The cost of solar panels for universities will vary based on the scope of the project, as well as the location of your university or college. A list of total costs includes:

  • PV module
  • Inverter
  • Electrical BOS
  • Structural BOS
  • Direct labor
  • Engineering
  • Supply chain, overhead and margin

The soft costs of solar power, such as labor, overhead and supply chain, will likely be the biggest line item.

For-profit universities and colleges installing solar panels can take advantage of a number of state and federal government tax incentives, which will share the cost of the system’s equipment and installment. For example, colleges and universities can receive a 30 percent investment tax credit from the federal government.

This incentive will cover 30 percent of the cost of acquiring and installing solar panels at a college or university. Academic institutions can also seek out state grants and incentives to help bear the cost. Look at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Energy to find what incentives are available in your state.


Five simple steps can help you determine the return on investment for a solar panel system:

  • Determine the total cost of buying and installing the system.
  • Subtract any incentives you receive from the total price tag.
  • Estimate your solar panel’s energy output in kilowatt-hours.
  • Multiply the estimated output by the price utilities charge per kilowatt-hour. This number will be your monthly savings.
  • Divide your net costs by your monthly savings.

Power Purchase Agreements

If your university or college is a nonprofit institution, its tax exempt status precludes it from taking advantage of any federal state and tax incentives for-profit institutions can use to fund a solar power project. This does not mean nonprofit schools have to give up the idea of solar power, however. These universities are great candidates for a solar power purchase agreement (PPA).

In a PPA, a developer will shoulder most, if not all, of the cost of installing solar panels at the university. Then, the developer will sell the university the power generated by the solar system. Most PPAs last from 10 to 25 years.

During the agreement, the developer is responsible for all maintenance on the solar panels. The developer makes a profit on the energy sales, while the university will generally pay a lower electric bill. Since developers are for-profit entities, they will also be able to take advantage of tax credits that the nonprofit university cannot.

PPAs have the potential to generate significant cost savings and dramatically improve greenhouse gas emissions. For example, Colonial School District in Pennsylvania entered into a PPA with Tangent Energy Solutions and a third-party investor. Through the PPA:

  • Solar panels were installed at three schools at no capital cost to the school district.
  • Tangent and the investor will sell the school’s solar power at a fixed rate for 20 years.

According to Tangent Energy Solutions, the solar panels are expected to:

How Going Solar Powered Generates Cost Savings

While solar panels require a significant upfront investment, these systems immediately begin generating cost savings. The energy the solar panels generate for the college or university is free.

Just how much in savings solar panels will earn for a university depends on many different factors. First of all, location is everything. Is your institution located in a state that receives consistent hours of sunshine? More sunshine means you can invest in a smaller solar panel system to generate the electricity you need. If you are in a state that receives less sun, like Alaska, you will have to invest more in a larger system. The efficiency of your system will play a significant role in cost savings generation.

States also have different utility policies that will play a role in how much solar can save universities and colleges. Most states have net metering polices, which are designed to support the growth of renewable energy including solar panels, small wind power generators, methane digesters and natural gas micro-turbines.

Under net metering policies, homes, schools and businesses can use solar panels to create their own electricity, which reduces the amount of electricity purchased from a utility. Homes, schools and businesses can then receive a credit on their electric bill, reducing the cost.

Decoupled utilities are another consideration. The word “decoupled” refers to earnings and sales. States that have decoupled utilities incentivize utilities to help consumers reduce electric consumption. Solar power reduces the amount of electricity used, translating into savings in states with decoupled utilities. In states without decoupled utilities, earnings and sales are intertwined. Utilities can increase a consumer’s bill for using less electricity.

If your university or college is in a state like this, your savings may not be as significant when compared to an institution in a state with decoupled utilities. Seventeen states have electric decoupling policies, while four states have pending policies, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

Colleges and universities are not the only academic institutions that stand to earn significant savings from solar power. A report from The Solar Foundation and Solar Energy Industries Association found solar panels at 450 school districts with K-12 schools could save each district more than $1 million over 30 years.

The Benefits of Going Solar

Cost savings can be a significant benefit of going solar, but electricity generated by fossil fuels is still relatively inexpensive. Therefore, switching to solar might mean a school’s electric bill is roughly the same as it was before. But the electric bill is not the only reason to consider this alternative energy source. Investing in solar represents a choice to invest in a clean, sustainable source of energy.

Beyond cost savings, benefits include:

  • Environmental impact: As a clean, renewable source of energy, solar panels are environmentally friendly. Generating electricity using the power of the sun does not result in pollution or greenhouse gas emissions, like burning fossil fuels does. Solar energy users are collectively able to save 75 million barrels of oil and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.
  • Energy independence: Solar power offers its users independence from limited natural resources and resources that have a detrimental impact on the environment. This also helps protect valuable natural resources that would otherwise be plundered or polluted.
  • Unlimited, reliable energy: Fossil fuels are a finite resource, but solar power is not. The energy from the sun can be used again and again to generate reliable power. Solar panels work without water, while fossil fuel technologies require massive amounts of water for cooling purposes. Drought will have no effect on solar power’s efficiency and energy production.

Additionally, solar panels are guaranteed to work for 20 to 25 years, with most manufacturers promising their products have 80 percent performance after the first 25 years.

  • More jobs: Solar power’s rise in popularity means there will be an increasing number of jobs to fill. The solar power industry will need salespeople, installation experts and manufacturers.

Colleges and universities can consider solar power an investment in a sustainable future.

Using Solar Panels as a Teaching Opportunity

Universities and colleges that use solar panels have an educational opportunity for their students. From research and installation to maintenance and monitoring results, universities can provide their students with an insight into how solar power works. Students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields can learn invaluable lessons from an institution’s decision to install a solar panel system.

Reach out to professors in the STEM fields at your university and get them involved. Ask them to take advantage of onsite solar panels and include them in their lesson plans. University leadership can even build extracurricular activities around solar power. Students can learn how solar power works and help track the panels’ efficiency.

Solar Panels as a Part of Your University’s Image

Universities with solar panels can incorporate solar power into the institution’s image and create a powerful message. Colleges and universities are meant to be bastions of knowledge and progress. A commitment to solar power is a visible commitment to those principles.

Most colleges and universities remain dependent on grid electricity. Those institutions aggressively pursuing renewable energy projects are seen as trailblazers in the struggle to reduce carbon emissions. Adopting solar panels will garner attention and change the way people think about a university.

Image is everything as students consider which colleges and universities they want to apply to and attend. More than half of prospective college students (63 percent) want to know about a college’s environmental stance and would consider this information in their decision-making process, according to a survey conducted by The Princeton Review.

More and more students are noticing what universities and colleges are doing to go green. Many organizations are putting together lists of the greenest college campuses. Colleges with solar panel power are going to stand out as students decide where to apply. Consider how such a positive element of your institution’s image could impact student enrollment.

Universities With Solar Power

Adding solar panels can be a daunting prospect. The technology is relatively young, and your institution would have to commit to a significant investment. But, universities and colleges do not have to enter these projects without any guidance. Some higher education institutions have already successfully taken the solar plunge. Look to these organizations to see how they adopted solar panels and what the results have been thus far.

Here are just five of many universities that have installed solar panels:

  • Northwestern University. Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, boasts the Centennial Solar Panel System, which sits on the university’s engineering design center building. The system has a total of 16.8 kilowatts, which could produce up to 20,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
  • Princeton University. Princeton University in New Jersey has a 5.3-megawatt solar collector field, which has a total of 16,500 PV solar panels. Princeton’s solar system is one of the largest at any college or university in the country. These solar panels are responsible for five percent to six percent of Princeton’s annual electricity use.
  • University of Arizona. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy gave the University of Arizona in Tucson a $15 million grant to help fund an Energy Frontier Center. The center focuses on solar energy storage. UA also has the Solar Zone at its Tech Park. The Solar Zone uses Arizona’s sunshine to generate 23 megawatts of power per day.
  • University of Utah. The University of Utah not only has solar panels on its own rooftops, but it also helps sponsor a community solar power program. U Community Solar has helped hundreds of campus community members install solar panels.

Solar energy is gaining traction across the country at businesses, private homes and academic institutions. The benefits are clear, and as more institutions embrace solar power, the price of the technology is dropping.

If your university, college or school district decides to harness the power of the sun, remember it is important to pick the right partner to help you design and install a system that fits the needs of your school. When you’re ready, reach out to us to learn more about making solar panels a reality at your university. Get a quote from Bright Eye Solar today.