At a Creston Community School Board meeting Monday, Superintendent Deron Stender told the board he and Business Manager Billie Jo Greene met with a representative from Red Lion Renewable that provides solar panels. “They’ve gotten a couple of school districts across the state of Iowa and a couple municipals across the state of Iowa and right now they’re looking at our data to analyze whether or not our district, based on our utility cost and our facilities and the way things are structured, whether that would be a benefit to us or not,” he said.
Stender said the options would be to either lease or own the panels. “I would say we want to lease it because if we own it, then we have to maintain it,” he said. “If we have a lightning strike, we have to replace or repair it. If we put the panels up and it’s over grass, we have to mow underneath it. If we lease it, they take care of everything. Of course you’re not going to have as much revenue generated off the electricity but you’re also not going to have the risk of all the associated costs that come with that.”
In order to limit the invasion of green space, solar panels have been widely used as carports to provide shaded parking while remaining in already concrete or asphalt areas. Stender wondered how Creston could customize that idea to fit the school’s needs.
“I said, what about a greenhouse? That could provide the top structure,” Stender told the board. “He said yeah that could provide a solid structure. You’ll have a roof, you’ll just have to have someone design how that’s going to be, the walls and the structure underneath that type of environment.”
Creating a greenhouse space for the school was one of the projects the general obligation bond would have funded had it passed earlier this month. Now, administrators are scrambling to find ways to complete projects with a limited budget.
Board member Galen Zumbach had questions about the logistics. “Does the light go through the solar panels?” he asked. “Because you’d have to have light coming through there. They can’t just come through the sides.”
An analysis completed by Power Technology reports solar panels convert 17 - 20% of light into electricity. Much of the light that strikes solar panels is reflected back, passes through the panel or is converted into heat instead of electricity.
His other concern was on the cost efficiency of the project. “You have to look at what’s the lease cost?” Zumbach said. “Is it heavily subsidized by the government? How cost effective is it? There will come a time when stuff like that is cost efficient. I mean, I couldn’t afford a VCR when I was in college. I couldn’t even afford a calculator when I took chemistry 141 and 142. I used a slide rule. That was hell. But guess what, the costs went down before I graduated and I could afford it.”
In Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand’s 2021 Iowa solar report, he found 80 communities using solar energy installations across the state.
“Those participating in this review reported annual savings as high as $80,000. The average annual savings was more than $26,475, and the average savings over the lifetime of the installation was $716,437,” the report stated. “If each county, each county seat and each school district created a solar installation of the average size of these installations, over the installations’ lifetimes, Iowa taxpayers could expect to net over $375 million in savings.”
Southwestern Community College recently updated their five year facility maintenance plan which includes the addition of solar panels to the campus to help address programs like welding using a large amount of energy. Solar energy provides a multitude of benefits for colleges. Solar installations dropped in price by 70% between 2010 and 2018, and solar energy is often cheaper than energy from fossil fuels.
“Unless it can be proven to me that this is cost efficient, not just the fad, I’m not interested,” Zumbach said.