Prove your humanity

A proposal in the state legislature would help boost renewables in Pennsylvania by easing the process for schools to install solar panels.

The Solar for Schools bill passed the House in June with a bipartisan vote of 134-69 and is now waiting for a vote in the Senate.

The initiative would give the Department of Community and Economic Development the ability to set up a grant program for schools to apply for federal climate money to cover up to half the cost of installing solar.

The state would provide technical support to help navigate the process.

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The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia), said schools are facing high energy bills and few administrators have the bandwidth to navigate a solar energy contract.

The ones that have managed to install solar are seeing big savings. Fiedler’s office points to Midd-West School District in Middleburg, which reduced its annual $420,000 electrical bill by about $145,000 after it installed 5,130 solar panels on 10 acres of property in 2020.

Fiedler said the program would give people the chance to see renewable energy working for their communities.

“Not just hear about it as an idea or see it on TV, but be able to imagine the ways in which their lives could be impacted by solar, by wind, by all sorts of clean energy,” Fiedler said.

She added that Solar for Schools could lay the groundwork to make schools resilience hubs; places that could offer shelter to the community in case of a climate change-related weather disaster.

There is no state money attached to the proposal, though Fiedler hopes to see it added in a later budget year.

The bill has support from labor unions, environmental groups and the solar industry.

“In addition to spurring local job and economic growth, solar is a great way for schools to save money and turn those energy cost savings into more resources for students and teachers,” said Leah Meredith, senior manager, mid-Atlantic region for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Executive director of the Pennsylvania Solar Center Sharon Pillar said her organization gives technical assistance to schools that want to install solar and she’s seen the savings that generates.

“The Solar for Schools bill would help move that process along faster,” Pillar said. “It is, however, just one piece of the much larger pie that is needed to accelerate our energy transition.”

She said to see a significant expansion of renewables in Pennsylvania, the legislature needs to increase its clean energy goals and allow community solar, which are relatively small projects that allow neighbors to directly subscribe. So far, the general assembly has failed to pass such measures.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.