These days, more and more students, teachers and parents are asking schools and colleges to go solar.
It’s the same with hospitals, local governments and many types of businesses.
As environmental awareness grows throughout society, customers, citizens and neighbors want the keystone institutions of their community to be part of the clean energy solution.
And rather than just signing up for “green power” on their utility bill, stakeholders want to see solar panels installed right on site. It’s a tangible sign that an organization is really using clean energy.
We’d like to see as many solar panels in as many places as possible. But unfortunately not every school, hospital or business location is right for on-site solar. While almost any building with a rooftop or a bit of space near its parking lot can host a few solar panels, to get enough solar power to make a difference in its electricity usage, an organization must meet a few criteria first.
Fortunately, it’s relatively simple to determine whether your organization is a good candidate for an on-site solar energy system. Just start out by answering six initial questions, listed below:
1. Do you own your roof?
For most schools or hospitals, which tend to own their own campuses, this is not an issue. For a business, it’s much easier to go solar on site if your building is owner-occupied. If you are able to make the decisions about your building yourself, then you have the option to buy or lease solar panels or else try to get solar panels installed by a company like ours that will continue to own the panels but sell you the power.
Businesses that rent or lease retail, office or manufacturing space need to work with the property owner to install solar panels on the roof. This can make things more complicated and may present a real barrier to getting solar power on site. If you’re a renter, your best option to use clean energy may be an off-site option, such as signing up for “green power” from your utility or another company authorized to supply electricity in your area.
2. Does your organization spend at least $50,000 per year for electricity?
An organization needs to have enough demand for power that adding solar makes sense from an economic perspective. We always try to save our potential customers money if they go solar, but sometimes, based on how they use electricity and their utility rates, this isn’t possible.
To benefit from solar panels on site with no upfront cost through a power purchase agreement, Secure Futures has found that customers should have an average annual electricity bill of at least $50,000.
Heavy electricity users with a high need for air conditioning and refrigeration are especially good candidates to save money with solar.
Think about it: On a hot summer afternoon, just when you need to cool things off inside your building the most, the solar panels installed outside on your rooftop will be producing the most power. Covering some of the power needed for cooling with your own solar power can save you real money. And if your utility bills you for demand charges, then shaving your peak usage with on-site solar power can save you even more.
3. Does your location have at least 30,000 square feet of shade-free roof or 1 acre of available land?
Solar panels, obviously, operate best in full sun. We look for south-facing roofs that are free from the shade of nearby buildings, tall trees and even other rooftop equipment (e.g., HVAC equipment).
While Secure Futures primarily installs solar panels on rooftops, we can install ground-mounted solar arrays as well. For example, at Clymore Elementary School in Fort Defiance, Virginia, the facilities team recommended a steep hill that was “only good for mowing” as an alternative site for a solar array when their roof turned out to be a bad candidate for solar panels. This actually turned out to be a lucky break. The ground-mount solar array is now visible from the school’s library and a couple of classrooms, making it an exciting teaching tool.
4. Does your building have a flat membrane or metal standing seam roof that’s relatively new?
Gravel roofs are not good candidates to host solar panels because an installer will have to sweep away the gravel before installing the metal racking structure that holds the solar panels in place facing the sun. If the gravel isn’t swept away first, the weight of the solar equipment can push the gravel into the roofing material underneath, damaging the roof and leading to leaks. For a commercial-scale solar installation, the effort to deal with gravel adds cost that can make a solar project too expensive.
Much better are smooth roof surfaces, which require little or no preparation to support a solar array’s racking. Standing seam metal roofs are also good candidates for solar panels, as the racking can be clipped onto the metal seams for a tight fit. And you may be surprised to know that with either type of roof, installing solar panels does not require putting holes in the roof. See our article “Can Solar Panels Damage Your Roof?” for the secret to installing a solar array without having to make any roof penetrations.
Modern photovoltaic panels have an expected lifespan of up to 40 years. If you own your own solar panels, you can certainly plan to move them in a few years to service your roof. If so, you will have to deal with that cost when the time comes. However, if you are getting solar panels with no upfront cost from a company like Secure Futures, the agreement will require that your roof be in good shape for the term of the agreement, usually 20 or 25 years, without the need to move any panels to replace or service a roof.
5. Is there an internal champion for solar in your organization?
If you’re reading this article, chances are that you are the organizational champion at your school or business. Or, you may be reading this because a colleague directed you to us. Either way, you probably have a champion on your team. If you’re not sure, it’s very helpful to identify a champion. While most organizations embrace the idea that renewable energy is a great choice, going solar is a big decision that can take months to make. Over that time, it’s helpful to have an employee, administrator or board member who believes in going solar to help guide the organization through the process and to keep leadership engaged.
6. Has your organization been financially strong for 10 years?
If you decide to buy solar panels outright, you should be relatively certain that your organization is financially sound enough to outlast the payback time for the solar equipment. In many states, it can take ten years or more for you to save enough money on your electric bill to make an investment in buying solar panels worthwhile.
But if you want to get solar panels on site with no upfront investment through a power purchase agreement with a company like Secure Futures, then you’ll need to be confident that your organization will be around for at least the next couple of decades. That’s because power purchase agreements generally extend over a time period of 20 or 25 years. In order to finance a PPA, a solar developer needs to show evidence that your organization has been financially healthy for the past decade as a sign that you’re likely to be around for the full term of the agreement.
Did you pass the solar-ready test?
If you were able to answer yes to all six questions above, then, congratulations! Your organization is a good candidate to go solar right on site.
But if one or two of the questions came up with the answer of “no” or “I don’t know,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that your school, hospital or company is not a candidate for on-site solar. It may just mean that you’re ready for a little guidance from someone with experience in assessing locations for solar arrays. For example, if your roof needs work, there may be ways to get that done in conjunction with going solar.
A good solar company will have an initial discussion with you without hype or pressure. After all, they don’t want to waste time on a location that just isn’t suited to solar panels on site.
Secure Futures will even offer you a quick assessment of your solar potential based on Google Earth images of your buildings and available land. If your location shows promise, then we can employ more specific tools to help determine where solar panels would make the most sense and what size solar power system would give you the most energy at the best cost.
— Laura Lambkin, Secure Futures Solar