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How an Arkansas School Utilized Solar Energy Savings to Increase Teacher Compensation

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Located in Batesville, Arkansas, a mere 17 miles from the biggest coal-fired power plant in the state, the high school in the area has implemented a solar array that is having an unorthodox effect: increasing the salary of teachers.

An energy audit was performed by Entegrity, an energy efficiency company, on the Batesville School District in 2017. The district, which includes Batesville High School and five other schools catering to approximately 3,200 students, was the subject of the audit.

The company, located in Little Rock, Arkansas, discovered that the school district's yearly utility expenses exceeded $600,000. This was a significant amount for a financially limited school system that had been experiencing difficulties in retaining teachers.

However, there was a Glimmer of Positivity

According to the audit, implementing over 1,400 solar panels and upgrading the lighting, heating and cooling systems, and windows in all facilities of Batesville High School could result in a cost savings of at least $2.4 million over a period of 20 years for the school district.

According to Batesville superintendent Michael Hester, the staggering amount was enough justification to proceed with a thorough energy efficiency project.

In an interview, Hester suggested utilizing the funds to increase teachers' salaries as a means to attract and retain both faculty and students, especially in the current era of school choice.

The resulting project has successfully reduced the district's yearly energy usage by 1.6 million kilowatts. In just three years, these savings have been enough to turn the district's $250,000 budget deficit into a surplus of $1.8 million.

As Hester initially predicted, a significant portion of the funds is being allocated for the payment of teachers' salaries, resulting in average pay increases of $2,000 to $3,000 per teacher.

According to Hester, our current standing in the state is among the top 25%.

Immediate Savings with No Initial Expenses

In Batesville, there are not the only schools using solar energy. In fact, more than 7,300 schools throughout the US are also implementing solar energy to cut down on utility costs, educate students about sustainable energy, and potentially decrease their contribution to climate change.

According to a report released by Generation 180, a non-profit organization promoting clean energy and monitoring the spread of solar energy in the American public education system.

The analysis conducted by the group revealed that in the year 2019, approximately 16% of school districts in the United States had implemented a combined solar capacity of 1,337 megawatts. This indicates that around 5.3 million students are currently enrolled in schools that utilize solar energy, which marks an 81% surge since 2014.

The organization's finding also highlighted the potential impact of using 100% solar power in all U.S. public schools, as it could lead to a reduction in emissions equivalent to shutting down 18 coal-fired power plants.

There are various obstacles that must be overcome, including policy barriers, financial complexities, and hesitations from certain communities towards choosing an unconventional energy source.

As per the findings of Generation 180, policies have been implemented by 28 states and the District of Columbia to tackle the challenges mentioned above.

The policies enable solar development companies, such as Entegrity, to utilize power purchase agreements for the funding, construction, and upkeep of solar arrays on a client's land. The client then compensates the developer for the energy generated by the panels over a specified timeframe, typically at a lower cost than the utility would charge.

According to Generation 180, approximately 80% of the solar power capacity installed in public schools in the United States was a result of agreements that transfer the financial and operational responsibilities of solar energy to specialized energy companies.

According to Tish Tablan, a program director at Generation 180, the majority of solar installations in schools are not funded by school budgets. Instead, a developer is responsible for covering the costs of the solar energy system, including installation and maintenance. This means that the schools are not required to pay any upfront fees and can immediately benefit from cost savings.

The Batesville district in Arkansas did not have access to the financing mechanism for their array project, as the state's Legislature did not pass its own version of the policy until March 2019. As a result, the district had to secure $5.4 million through a bond in order to acquire the necessary funds for their project, which had started earlier that year.

The project, despite challenges, achieved success and has had a positive impact on the neighboring area.

According to Hester, numerous school districts in our region have adopted our model, with a minimum of 20 districts following suit. The evidence of our performance speaks for itself and serves as a clear example for neighboring districts.

According to Rick Vance, the manager of Entegrity projects in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Missouri, the implementation of the Solar Access Act has led to a notable increase in the number of school districts in the vicinity of Batesville that are contemplating the use of solar energy.

According to Vance, Batesville, Cedar Ridge, Midland, and Southside are all located in Independence County and are all utilizing solar energy through our services.

Tablan suggests that the reason behind Generation 180's support for solar energy in public schools is due to the fact that these institutions play a significant role as community centers in various locations. This enables them to encourage and empower individuals to promote the use of clean energy within their own communities, as stated by Tablan.

'Delightful Shock'

According to Hester, the energy efficiency program yielded an unexpected response from the citizens of Batesville, located near the coal-fired power plant in Independence County.

According to Hester, around 30% of the population in the Batesville area is over the age of 60. This played a role in his initial doubts about the community's reception towards using public funds to implement solar panels at the nearby high school.

According to Hester, the citizens of Batesville were prompt in showing their approval for the project, and they praised the district for their efforts in being cost-effective with the use of their taxes.

According to Hester, the nearby plant managed by Entergy Arkansas is scheduled to close by 2030, which may have contributed to this attitude.

According to Hester, there is a widespread understanding that the coal plant has a finite existence, resulting in not only a decrease in income but also a decrease in employment opportunities. This has caused a sense of unease among people.

According to Hester, it was a pleasant surprise to see that there are methods to mitigate the impact of these losses and move forward in different ways.

According to Vance, during his time at Entegrity, he has faced opposition towards solar energy. This is due to the fact that individuals have established connections with their local utilities, making the idea of renewable energy unfamiliar to them.

According to him, the primary factor to consider is the cost savings, employment opportunities, and positive impact on the environment that solar energy can bring to a community. He referred to this as a "boomerang effect."

According to Vance, he resides in extremely remote areas. However, he also mentioned that when he informs people about how solar energy is currently the most cost-effective way to generate power globally, he receives many positive responses. It outperforms coal and gas, as well as other fossil fuels, which one would typically assume someone with a different perspective would prefer.

Climatewire. (2020, October 15). This Arkansas School turned solar savings into Better teacher pay. Energy News Network.

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