Surge of interest in K-12 Solar for Schools program

Incentive program aims to ease upfront cost to solar energy projects

Two people stand next to solar panels on a roof
St. Peter Public Schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth (right) and SPPS operations and maintenance supervisor Sharon Petersen stand next to a new solar array on the roof of St. Peter High School on Aug. 10.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Dozens of students practice their layups in the St. Peter High School gymnasium. The scoreboard flashes. The buzzer sounds.

And it’s all powered by something on the roof.

A large, brightly lit gym
The Saint Peter High School gymnasium is illuminated by lights powered by a recently installed solar array on the roof on Aug. 10. The array was built with help from the state's Solar for Schools program.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

That’s where six rows of solar panels glistened in the rain on a recent school day.

They are part of an almost $300,000 project. The district’s share is $70,000. St. Peter School District Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the panels will save the school district as much as $10,000 annually in electricity bills.

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So, in about seven years, the district will cover its investment. He also said another two decades of operation will cover the grant from the state. 

“But the life of the solar panels is about 40 years,” Gronseth said. “So, that’s where the big savings comes from.”

Eventually, Gronseth estimates, the solar energy project will save St. Peter Public Schools hundreds of thousands of dollars. The high school and middle school use the energy as it is produced. The superintendent said they considered getting solar panels in the parking lot, tall enough to shade cars. 

“But, they have to be so high and it costs so much more,” he added. 

A close up of solar panels
A new array of solar panels are seen on the roof of St. Peter High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Switching to solar

Electricity is still one of the biggest expenses for schools. 

St. Peter School District Operations and Facilities Supervisor Sharon Petersen said many districts are interested in installing solar energy systems, resulting on ongoing discussions about making the transition to renewable energy.

But Petersen said there are big barriers. 

“I think it’s the cost, the initial startup cost,” Petersen said. “I think that’s why the state set up the grant program to help offset those costs, because I think that is what keeps a lot of the districts from putting in solar.”

In 2021, the state legislature established the Solar for Schools incentive program. It provides financial and technical assistance to districts wanting to install solar energy systems. The program also requires districts to integrate their solar energy projects into curriculum and make it a learning tool in the classroom. 

Solar panels on a building roof
A new array of solar panels are seen on the roof of St. Peter High School.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

During the program’s first year, 63 Minnesota schools received grants to install solar energy systems. These projects, along with pending applications, represent an almost 50 percent increase in state schools using solar energy. 

St. Peter Public Schools was a 2022 grant recipient. Other southwestern Minnesota districts which also received a grant for installing solar include Marshall, St. James and Sleepy Eye. 

Initially, Gronseth said St. Peter applied for funds to install solar panels on all of its school buildings. 

“But with the number of requests that [the grant program] got, and the amount of money that they were requesting, most of those applications got half of what they asked for,” he said. “And, so we made the decision to have it on the middle school and high school to begin with.”

The Minnesota Department of Commerce's Jack Kluempke works on the Schools for Solar program.

It was so popular during the first round much of the available money was allocated. As a result, this year the Legislature  added an additional 29 million dollars for K-12 schools. 

Kluempke expects the program to remain popular.  

“And just in reaching out to the schools and getting a feeling for, you know, what the interest is? I think this pot of money is gonna go relatively quickly, too.”

A surge of interest

Gronseth said St. Peter has long been interested in solar power, but it couldn’t get the numbers to work. Without the money to cover the initial investment, it then couldn’t realize the saving that solar power offers.

“Because you’re really getting that money back over time,” he said.

“And times are tough for schools and school districts,” he said. “Solar panels don’t cost quite as much as they used to, they’re still quite expensive.”

Under the Solar for Schools program, St. Peter and other grant recipients need to report energy consumption data back to the state. That will allow the state to report back how much money and power was saved and possibly benefit other districts looking to make the solar energy transition. 

“Like many other businesses and organizations, we’re looking to reduce our carbon footprint, the school is one of the biggest users of energy here in the community,” Gronseth said. “And so, not only is it better for the planet, but it also reduces pressure on the local power grid.”

The city of St. Peter is also going through a transformation of its own. Living in town, both Gronseth and Petersen see more solar panels installed in fields and on residences through homeowner grants. 

“I was a little bit disappointed because my house is tree-covered,” Petersen laughed. “They were knocking on doors, asking people about solar, and ‘why didn’t you knock on my door?’ Because I have a tree-covered yard, so I can’t do it. So, I was a little bit disappointed.”

Gronseth said students will now be able to learn from real-world examples of renewable energy in their community, including on their school roofs. The superintendent said this will include monitoring how much power is being generated through the solar panels. 

“Our science classes and math classes and our elementary classrooms will be able to go onto the website and see live data to work within their classrooms,” he said. “And so, we’re excited about the possibilities, and we’re still developing what exactly those will look like.”

St. Peter schools may apply for further funding to put solar panels on elementary school roofs later. For now, the district is closely watching whether its solar arrays perform as well as projected.