Last week, I talked about the Green California Schools Summit happening this week in Pasedena. This week, I interviewed one of the panelists who’ll be speaking. Mike Hall is the Chief Marketing Officer at Borrego Solar, a California-based solar integrator that works extensively on solar installations in schools.
ECP: Tell us about Borrego Solar and their work with schools going solar.
MH: Borrego Solar is a solar integrator, so we’re the last part of the machine, and what we do is provide turnkey solar electric solutions for our customers. We have two groups, one is called the commercial project group and they’re the ones that service the education industry and work with schools on developing solar projects. They also do commercial and industrial and government work, and then we have a division that does single-family homes. We’re very much focusing on trying to provide not just solar solutions for schools, but better solar solutions for schools. When we looked at the schools, the education industry, and school construction, we’ve been reading some studies that show that the single biggest contributor to new building construction is the construction and retrofitting of schools. If you look at the overall energy issues and the various contributors to carbon emissions, there are really two big sources. One of course is cars and transportation, which our company is not really taking on head on, the second is buildings, which we’re trying to tackle, and if you look at buildings, if you look at new construction, schools are the biggest contributor. So that’s a big reason why we’re focused on schools.
Secondary reasons are to kind of change things, the opportunity to teach students that there are alternatives to the existing fossil fuel-based energy sources. So we’re trying to work with schools. One of the things we’ve seen with schools is that there have been a fair amount, a very tiny percentage, but a fair amount of schools that have gone solar. A large amount of those schools have really not themselves been properly educated about solar and have not had enough support from their integrator to take that next step and not just treat it like an appliance on their roof that is hopefully saving them some money, but that they’re teaching the kids about what it is and use it as a demonstration piece to show that you can power your buildings and power your life with renewable energy. So that’s kind of where we’re coming from, and this session that we’re leading at the Green Schools Summit is really about enabling schools to go solar and some of the things that have happened very recently in the financial products market and then also on the technology side that are really making it much easier for them to go solar.
ECP: How have you seen schools involvement in solar change over the past five years?
MH: If you look at the schools who were going solar five years ago, which is again a relatively small number, but there were some schools who were doing it, there was a very generous subsidy program from the state of California that was driving these schools to go solar. It was at a time when there certainly was an awareness of global warming, but it was pre-Inconvenient Truth, and it wasn’t the hot-button issue on everybody’s mind, so actually the motivation even though we think of schools as being environmentally progressive, we’ve been going back and talking to these schools and we found that the motivation was mostly financial, and yeah, it’s nice that it’s green, but it was really financial motivation, which is what led them to treat the thing as an appliance as opposed to this great demonstration piece or awesome learning opportunity. What we’re seeing is that the awareness of global warming is evolving and schools motivations to make solar change is going from largely financial which, to be honest, not that there are no financial benefits, but it’s not like these things pay for themselves in one year, but it’s changed the motivation from one that is largely financial to one that is more holistic and involves greening the school, teaching the kids about greening and the overall sustainability of projects. We think now that schools want to be much more involved in their solar projects and we want to teach not just kids but the whole community. So it’s been sort of an evolution of motivation.
ECP: What kind of programs do you do as far as the education aspect?
MH: We’re not–I mean, we have some ex-teachers, we have an ex-science teacher on staff, but we can’t claim to be educators as our core competency. So, in all fairness, part of what we’re trying to do is develop a team that would involve people who are professional educators and consultants who can help us integrate a curriculum and actually make better development. We think the first step, the key step, and the one that hasn’t happened for a lot of these projects is letting everybody know it’s there, and giving them information about what it’s doing, why it was done, and what this means to them, so for example, we’re working with a private school in Oakland, and we’re just starting to complete the system and we’re working on sponsoring a large event where we’re going to let all the kids and the community know about that and bring in a speaker from UC-Berkeley to talk about what it is we did and why this is good and how this is effecting their school and the school’s energy. We did a school back in 2004 and to our discredit and to the school’s discredit, we didn’t have a big release, and now I think, unfortunately, that the students are only marginally aware of what’s going on on their roof.
ECP: How do you persuade school officials and community members that solar is to their advantage? Here in the Midwest, I think schools are more reluctant to pay the upfront costs to solar, so how do you sell that? Is it easier in California?
MH: It is easier in California. It becomes a lot easier if the state or the federal government is willing to kick in some support. I’m pretty sure the state support for solar in Missouri is limited. We have a much better program in California and some other states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, parts of Texas, Colorado, have programs and programs in the Pacific Northwest that are in development, so there are a lot of states that have subsidy programs. Once you have the subsides come in, and, to be honest, it’s challenging to make the numbers pepper out without the state subsides, you can combine them with the 30% federal tax credit, and what we do is combine that with financial opportunities for a third-party organization to come in and finance the whole system at no up-front cost to the district and then essentially take the partial place of a utility company providing energy to schools but providing clean energy and due to all these tax credits and state subsidies, they can usually sell the energy to schools at a discount. This way, you eliminate that large up-front expenditure, which is the large barrier for schools.
The second barrier is kind of a technical one and a comfort one. When you are doing construction on schools, they are, for good reason, very conservative with safety, so in Missouri for example, if they are seeing it for the first time, if they’re seeing this new type of electric power generation, you’re going to be hyper sensitive to what all the safety issues are. In California, we’ve overcome a lot of those by working with the DSA, who is our state agency that governs that, and we’ve got some technology and some designs approved that [schools] feel comfortable with, but again, that’s taken years.
ECP: What kind of feedback have you had from the schools you’ve been working with?
MH: We’ve seen that people and schools are really happy that they’ve done it. They’re really excited to have it. They’re always happy to save any kind of money, whether it’s hundreds of dollars a month or thousands of dollars a month, they’re in the black. We’re working on interviewing different schools in California that have gone solar and trying to get feedback as to what their experiences were. A lot of them were happy that they did it, but never really were given the education to understand what it is that’s on their roof, what it is that’s on their ground, how much energy is it producing, how much energy is it saving, how can they incorporate it into the curriculum. They just got too busy to do anything but treat it as an appliance. That’s the behavior that we’re trying to change. Okay, yeah, you’re busy, but you don’t really know enough about this and what you’ve done to make it an educational tool, something that’s going to change our future, not just something that reduces carbon, but hopefully we’re teaching students. Most teachers don’t know enough about that. We do, but we’re not professional educators, so let’s work together, let’s bring in some partners to help us, and let’s make sure we approach this holistically.
ECP: Based on your experiences, if you could make predictions for the future of solar in schools, do you see solar as being the renewable of choice for schools?
MH: Yes. In the near future, we need to have all new schools having a significant amount of their energy needs supplied by on-site solar, and we need to start retrofitting existing schools. It’s too good a match. It makes too much sense. It’s starting to happen, and I feel strongly that in the coming years, it’s going to accelerate.
ECP: Talk to me a little bit about what you guys are going to be talking about at the Green Schools Summit next week.
MH: What we’ve done is put together a panel, it’s myself, somebody from a tech company that’s developed some solar technology that’s used widely on schools, a finance person, and a representative from a school district that has gone solar and they’ll talk about their experiences. The overall theme is eliminating some of the preconceived barriers to solar, barriers they’ve faced in the past: large capital costs, ability to get the technology approved by state agencies, and having competent people. All these things are addressed. We’re talking about the hurdles you have to jump over to do this. These hurdles are much lower than they were previously. Our job is to package everything together. As the integrator, our job is to integrate all the different products and services and package together the best of what’s out there. It’s no longer so challenging for schools to do it. They don’t have to write a multi-million dollar check. They don’t have to do a deep drive through all the technologies to understand how solar cells work. It’s a lot easier now. So that’s kind of our theme.
Mike will be speaking, along with Alex Welczeck from Solar Panel Partners, Mike Pile from Sunlink Corp., and Eric Jetta of the Laguna Beach Unified School District, at the Green Schools Summit this week in a panel titled Touch the Sun: New Ways To Build and Finance Solar Power Systems.
[This post was written by Kelli Best-Oliver]