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SOS: Schools on Solar

There is an SOS coming from communities across the nation: Save Our Schools. With the rise of new financing tools like power purchase agreements (PPAs)and the right support from the public and politicians, I believe we have an answer: Schools On Solar.

Schools nationwide are in dire fiscal straits and have been forced to make hard financial decisions to stay afloat — usually by shutting down an increasingly comprehensive list of classes, skimping on materials and shutting down operations. In California, the nation's greatest solar state, Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting at least $4 billion in overall education spending to help restore the budget deficit. Across the nation in the Sunshine State, Florida lawmakers are struggling to avoid cutting $357 million from the education budget — after losing $468 million in funding last year.

I believe that solar power options like PPAs can recharge our ailing schools and not only save them money, but also help plan regular, measured payments that put resources and financial support back into schools' hands.

Traditionally, implementing solar systems at educational facilities presents a laundry list of problems: many public schools don't have the available resources to make use of capital budgets, can't gain the support for bond measures including solar systems or can't run a buying process on existing staffing and budgets in order to purchase and maintain a solar installation. RFP management, architectural design and proper evaluation of alternative energy paths are time-consuming and expensive, making it difficult to go solar. The costs and efforts of system maintenance and monitoring — combined with uncertainty around system generation — further complicate the process.

These contributing factors all cause administrators and facility managers to be initially cautious and slow to move on investments like solar energy. But we have found that these same administrators are financially creative people who understand the financial benefits of solar. And they want to see progress. Their bottom line is often that solar companies have to deliver more than an environmentally-friendly project. They have to be financially sound and save the district money from day one.

Enter PPAs.

PPAs can help schools precisely predict what their power costs can be — through fixed cost energy pricing — so they can better gage spending that might otherwise go to increased electricity costs.

They also enable schools to capitalize on credits and incentives, specifically the solar Investment Tax Credit. Under the proper utility tariff and utilizing the available tax and rebate incentives, PPA providers can offer schools a rate of power that's competitive with existing utility rates. Meanwhile, PPA providers handle the outsourcing of contractors and financing, removing extra labor on their behalf.

New options like PPAs make for a strong start. But we believe that such advanced products alone won't be enough to start turning the tide towards energy independence for our schools. That's why we also need a political stimulus to kick-start schools on their way to renewable energy adoption.

Already, we've seen solar resonate in candidates' energy platforms, along with its importance to growing security and energy-savings in the public sector. For example, both Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's energy platforms call for more stringent government leadership in these areas.

Clinton has called for a "Green Building Fund" to infuse $1 billion into energy efficiency for public buildings like schools. In addition, she's calling on schools to stand up as exemplars in their community through a platform of Individual Responsibility, asking them to reduce emissions in their communities and will propose a set of Department of Energy awards to recognize the most outstanding climate achievers.

Likewise, Obama has taken a strong position in calling for federal efficiency grants to help build more efficient schools that conform to green building certifications.

With pressure stepping up of from Silicon Valley renewable energy companies, who continue supporting federal tax credits for local and state clean energy projects, its clear that a combination of the right financial and product tools, and the right political pressure for energy solutions, can help stimulate this sector, and our future, and realize the enormous opportunity in using new paths to solar to save our schools.

Preston Roper is executive vice president, corporate development and operations at Tioga Energy.  Roper was recently senior vice president of marketing and sales at Bitpass. Previously he was VP Marketing at business intelligence provider JasperSoft, as well as vice president of marketing at Tesaria, a provider of mobile commerce solutions. Prior to completing his Masters of Business Administration at Stanford University, he led business development and fund-raising for the University in Germany, where he also became fluent in German. Roper holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science degree in hardware-software co-design from Stanford University.

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